NASA plans to park a “Deep Space” habitat near the Moon, which astronauts could visit and use to become acclimated to life beyond low-Earth orbit. As the SLS rocket, Orion spacecraft and crew members have nowhere to go—there is no Moon lander, and asteroids and Mars are too far away for now.
President Obama mentioned deep space habitats earlier this month, when he reiterated his call for NASA to send humans to Mars. “I’m excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space,” Obama said.
This wasn’t really a new announcement, as NASA has been working on the habitat program for a couple of years. Nevertheless, before the president’s mention, this NextSTEP program had received surprisingly little attention given its significance—it might be the most important contract NASA awards for next decade.
The NextSTEP contract merits attention for two reasons, beyond providing an essential destination for NASA’s astronauts and exploration vehicles in the 2020s. For one, these funds will not just go toward a one-off outpost in deep space. Rather, if the habitat works well it could serve as a template for a habitation module for astronauts to travel in from Earth to Mars, and a modified version could also serve as living quarters on the surface of the red planet itself. Ultimately the contract could be worth tens of billions of dollars, if not more. A second reason is that NASA has legitimately opened up the competition to a startling diversity of contractors, from traditional aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing down to small, relative newcomers, like Bigelow Aerospace and NanoRacks.
To get a sense of the scope of the program, Ars met earlier this year with Matt Simon, the habitation lead for NASA’s Evolvable Mars Campaign. The discussion happened in August, shortly after the NextSTEP program had moved into “Phase II,” where six companies will receive a total of $65 million through the end of 2017 to refine their concepts for a deep-space habitat and build a ground-based prototype to test the form, fit, and function. This will set the stage for Phase III, likely to be awarded in 2018 or 2019, which will kick off the construction of flight hardware.
The nominal plan is to launch the habitat sometime in the mid-2020s, and thereafter NASA intends to send human crews to the habitat once per year for 30 to 60 days at a time. “Eventually we would like to build up the duration of time that we can stay at this habitat to longer and longer durations that are more analogous to the durations we would see on a Mars mission, or at least sufficiently long to test out the things we need to test out,” Simon said. NASA would like to conduct a year-long mission in deep space by the end of the 2020s.