One of the provisions of the new NASA spending bill, which provided a hefty $1.3 billion boost to the space agency’s budget, is a mandate to build a prototype habitation module for deep space exploration by 2018. Space News suggested on Monday that NASA is uncertain how to proceed with this sudden largess. Quite some time has passed since the space agency has gotten more money than expected and been told to speed up the development of an item of hardware. Usually, the opposite happens, with accompanying delays and increases in overall costs.
Thus far it had been funding a number of studies by private companies.
“Under its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, program, NASA awarded study contracts in March to Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK to study habitat designs. It also awarded contracts to Dynetics, Hamilton Sundstrand and Orbital Technologies Corp. for specific module technologies, such as life support systems.”
The contracts, each worth $1 million, were let out in March 2015 and were due to last a year. Then NASA planned to use the results of the studies to move forward to the next phase. That next phase could mean having commercial companies build prototypes. The space agency could even build the prototype in house.
In the meantime, however, Bigelow plans to attach its version of an inflatable habitat to the International Space Station under a different arrangement with the space agency. The addition will give NASA and industry a better idea about how inflatables work long-term in space.
What Congress is thinking by speeding up the development of a habitation module is unclear. NASA had planned to use the module as part of a cislunar space station that would test technologies necessary for the Journey to Mars in the 2020s. Commercially built modules would also be useful for private space stations that could follow the ISS once it reaches the end of its operational life.
On the other hand, by 2018, the new president would likely have already placed his or her stamp on the space program, something that might include reconstituting a return to the Moon as part of the deep space exploration program. A deep space habitation module could be adapted for lunar surface operations in that event.