NanoRacks Teams With SSL, ULA on NextSTEP-2 Habitat Development

Concept image representing the feasibility study that NanoRacks will conduct related to converting a launch vehicle's upper stage into a habitable volume. (Credit: NanoRacks)
Concept image representing the feasibility study that NanoRacks will conduct related to converting a launch vehicle’s upper stage into a habitable volume. (Credit: NanoRacks)

HOUSTON, Texas (NanoRacks PR) – NASA has selected the Ixion Initiative Team, comprised of NanoRacks, LLC (“NanoRacks”), Space Systems/Loral, LLC (“SSL”), and United Launch Alliance (“ULA”) – the nation’s premier launch provider, to participate in the Agency’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (“NextSTEP-2”) program.

The Ixion Team is a new addition to NASA’s NextSTEP effort, and will begin by conducting a comprehensive feasibility study evaluating the conversion of rocket upper stages into habitats. This innovative approach offers a pathway that is more affordable and involves less risk than fabricating modules on the ground and subsequently launching them into orbit.

The Ixion Team proposes demonstrating this revolutionary, low-cost concept via the conversion of a Centaur rocket upper stage which will be attached to the International Space Station (“ISS”). After the converted Centaur upper stage is attached to the ISS, the Ixion Team will leverage the habitat as a proving ground for a variety of private sector activities leading to a new era in commercial low Earth orbit (“LEO”) utilization.

The Ixion Team is composed of commercial space leaders. No company has done more commercial work on the ISS than NanoRacks, which has shepherded over 350 payloads through the Station’s safety and review process, and NanoRacks has deployed 131 satellites from the ISS and ISS visiting vehicles. SSL, America’s most prolific commercial satellite manufacturer, will apply its world-class capabilities to executing the Ixion Initiative, while exploring the benefits of leveraging a crewed space station to assemble and deploy satellites.

After being proven in LEO, the Ixion Team’s approach can be used to create deep space habitats from any future rocket upper stages, including the Space Launch System’s upper stage, which would provide a substantial amount of volume and capability for beyond LEO human exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Re-use of upper stages for habitats is a proven concept, first implemented by NASA’s Wernher von Braun for Skylab, America’s first space station.

“Our plan is to dramatically lower the proposed costs for habitats to allow for the largest customer base, both commercial and government,” explained Jeffrey Manber, Chief Executive Officer of NanoRacks, LLC. “With Loral and NanoRacks working together, we have the knowledge base to assure a solid commercial use of tomorrow’s habitats via re-purposed ULA Centaur platforms.”

“SSL is excited to be a part of the Ixion team and to work with its partners and NASA.” said Mike Gold, Vice President of Washington Operations and Business Development. “We’re eager to explore how our company’s exceptional technical capabilities can be leveraged to support NASA’s human exploration missions beyond LEO, while simultaneously utilizing the ISS as an incubator for new and innovative ways to fabricate and deploy commercial satellites. At SSL, we’re constantly striving to expand and improve commercial capabilities and the NextSTEP-2 program provides a unique opportunity to craft a dynamic and complimentary future for private and public sector space operations.”

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  • P.K. Sink

    Am I crazy…or does this proposal sound crazy?

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Wet labs sound like a great way of recycling stuff in space until you work out what has to be done. Anything stored in the LOX tank during launch has to be able to take the extremely hostile temperature and chemical environment. Life support equipment for instance is normally designed to work in a shirt sleeves environment so will break and burn in LOX.

    ULA will probably do better to convert a fairing into a module on the ground. Possibly into the control room for a propellant depot or spaceship ship yard. An airlock for people may be in NanoRacks expertise.

    An Upper Stage could be refuelled to act as an Earth Departure Stage.

  • JamesG

    Its just a paper project. Like the dozens NASA has commissioned before.

  • JamesG

    The tanks would almost assuredly be completely empty while storing propellant, and then stuff moved into them once they have been purged and re-pressurized with air. The real problem with this idea (and why It’s never been used) is that adding insulation and micro meteoroid protection, docking and hatch ports as well as the fittings and attachment bosses for using it as a hab adds an order of magnitude to the engineering complexity of the tank structure and has a not insignificant weight penalty.

  • duheagle

    Perhaps its only saving grace is that Ixion is never likely to actually get to try it for real.

  • Charles Lurio

    FWIW, the “wet” Skylab concept would have had floor grids installed before flight, but a quick check turned up no more than that.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    If the furniture, fittings and fixtures are not brought up in the propellant tanks they need their own containers. Increase the size of the containers and these containers (brought up in the faring) become modules in their own right. It is easier to live in the fitted out modules.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Basically if something is not made of stainless steel (or Teflon) and fastened firmly in place it cannot go into the ‘wet’ area.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Bigelow Aerospace are bidding a B330 module as their NextSTEP ground demonstration prototype unit. Except for the Ixion Team the project is past the paper stage.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Surely there is more to a space station than maintaining an atmospheric pressure. “Wet labs” are the antithesis of fully reusable and thus affordable launchers. Space habitats should be designed to do the job of space habitation. May be I’m asking too much.

  • JamesG

    I think Bigelow is pimping their modules to all the participants.

  • newpapyrus

    Skylab was an excellent space station that required only a single heavy lift launch to deploy.

    With its larger tank diameter, an SLS upper stage hydrogen tank would be even better. Its larger tank diameter should also make it easier to internally shield a habitat with water or regolith bags.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    A sign the company is being run by a businessman rather than a government contractor.

  • windbourne

    First off, having a single unit was a HORRIBLE mistake.
    Now, I loved its size and the fact that they one large area to work with.
    BUT, if it takes a hit, then there are issues.
    OTOH, with ISS, you have a compartmented approach.
    What is needed is multiple BA-330s, and then later on, replace the 330s with say 1700s.

  • newpapyrus

    Taking a hit could seriously damage any habitat, no matter how many pressurized units it has. That’s why should never deploy just one space habitat.

    The ISS program should have consisted of at least two separate smaller space stations. That would have allowed twice as many astronauts and scientist to do research in orbit while also providing a nearby back up station in case there was serious damage to the other space co-orbiting space station.

    Marcel