NanoRacks and NASA Sign NextSTEP Contract for Commercial Habitat Concept Study

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 (NanoRacks PR) — This week marks an important milestone for NanoRacks. NanoRacks and NASA have signed the contract for Ixion, a commercial habitat concept study first announced last summer.

The contract will focus on repurposing spent launch vehicle upper stages. NanoRacks is working with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to provide launch services and Space Systems Loral who will provide robotic outfitting capabilities.

Funded by the NASA NextSTEP-2 award, the Ixion concept is the only one of the NASA-funded programs that focuses on repurposing spent launch vehicle upper stages.

For us, at NanoRacks, the signing of the agreement marks a broader milestone: the public start of our commitment to bring about cost-efficient, commercial space stations via re-purposing in-space hardware, and we can’t wait to bring you along for the ride into the future.

Every step NanoRacks takes on the International Space Station (ISS) is preparing us for building on our vision of the future – a world where launches are plentiful, the in-space destination is king – and commercial habitats and space stations populate our solar system with customers from every sector of our society.

Starting with plug-and-play research modules, we’ve mastered how to operate science labs in microgravity and leverage the astronaut expertise onboard, while also building up robotics programs for increased automation and efficiency. We’ve stimulated the growth of the satellite deployment market as the leading provider for CubeSat services in low-Earth orbit, with one of the world’s most diverse customer bases. We’re learning how to operate in the extreme space environment, while limiting space debris, with our External Platform.

Our team, the “Ixion Initiative 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.

Additionally, the Ixion Initiative Team proposes demonstrating this revolutionary, low-cost concept via the conversion of a Centaur rocket upper stage, which can be attached to the ISS. After the converted Centaur upper stage is attached to the ISS, our 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 utilization.

NASA has made it clear that the International Space Station will be the last U.S. government-funded space station in low-Earth orbit – and all of us at NanoRacks believe we are well positioned to be one of the commercial leaders as NASA focuses on taking America into deep space.

Let the designing begin.

Jeffrey Manber
CEO, NanoRacks

  • Cool. I love to see people trying new things and trying to squeeze extra capabilities from existing hardware. The NanoRacks folks have done some excellent work.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Do you think the astronauts will poke their head in the H2 tank and take in a bug huff of warm gas to see how funny their voice gets? Not to mention the fun that could be had with a bick lighter after the H2 works its way through their digestive system.

    That said, perhaps better off not, it would be really cool to see upper stages being re-used and outfitted in this way. Perhaps one day soon someone will create a storage yard in popular orbital planes to collect and keep tanks and engines for future re-fueling and re-use. DSE and PR would love that as a market to service.

  • Sounds like a market in the making! All hail the companies that have figured out how to use the ISS for for economic benefit!

  • Jeff2Space

    LOL, you’re too funny. H2 is easily vented to the vacuum of space (same as LOX from the oxidizer tank). Just open up a valve to the outside and let the tank vent. Once vented, there will be no “residue” to speak of inside the tank since great pains are taken to keep the inside of H2 and LOX tanks extremely clean.

    Also, they’re just reusing an idea from the 1960s here. The original Skylab concept was a “wet workshop” which would have been launched on a Saturn IB and the third stage’s H2 tank would have become the orbital workshop and the O2 tank the “trash can”. But, later on the Skylab program switched to a “dry workshop” launched on a Saturn V. That way the conversion of the tanks would happen on the ground, so no outfitting would be necessary once it reached orbit. The downside, of course, was that launching it all on a Saturn V was considerably more expensive than launching it on a Saturn IB.

  • duheagle

    The S-IVB was not the 3rd stage of the Saturn 1B, it was the 2nd stage. Saturn 1B only had two stages.

  • Vladislaw

    Deorbit them as trash bins?

  • “The Era of Wonderful Nonsense” – I have been telling people to expect that very thing (even though I wasn’t so insightful as to compare it to the 20s like that).

    Do I think half the ideas people are trying will work? No.

    Am I glad they are trying them? Yes.

    Am I smart enough to pick winners and losers better than the market? Absolutely not!

  • If dragon brings up more than it sends down, why not?!?

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Also Saturn stages weren’t thin walled stainless steel balloons. Seems insane to throw people into a mass optimized upper stage tank. What about MMOD, radiation and impact protection? Can these even be done without throwing a giant sleeve around it?

  • duheagle

    Jeff2Space is actually the one that made the “trash can” reference.

    But now that we’re on the subject…

    I believe what Jeff says below is correct; Dragon already hauls up larger loads than it returns. Also, Dragon being the only current resupply vehicle with significant downmass capability, not everything Dragon returns is necessarily stuff it carried up in the first place. I imagine the same is true of Cygnus anent the trash it carries to destruction at end of mission. Based on the lack of any laundry facility aboard ISS, I suspect Cygnus’s trash payloads consist largely of dirty laundry that can’t be washed. The ISS crew are, in this sense at least, a bit like certain possibly apocryphal rich people who are said never to wear the same clothing twice.

    As for deorbiting an entire wet workshop module after its oxygen tank fills up with trash, that strikes me as being analogous to another vintage apocryphal story of the rich and decadent – buying a new car when the ashtrays get full.

  • duheagle

    In fairness, I don’t think either the Centaur or ACES tanks are metal balloons either. It’s certainly not obvious that either would be poorer candidates for wet workshop conversion than was the S-IVB.

    Part of my skepticism of the whole wet workshop idea, though, is precisely the lack of Whipple shielding to which you also refer. But Skylab got along without any such either, so we know it was possible to get away with that almost a half-century ago. Whether the same is true in today’s orbital debris environment is an open question. I think wet workshops would have to be retrofitted with Whipple shields. That, unfortunately, is likely to fatally compromise their economics anent purpose-built hab modules.

    That Sawzall question is one that came up and got kicked clear around the soccer field some time ago on another forum when ULA first broached this idea a year or so back. One charming lunatic – I no longer remember who – was plumping for the use of linear shaped charges to cut loose a common bulkhead. Never let it be said that one dubious idea can’t birth a second one that is completely deranged.

    Given that the LH2 tanks on hydrolox stages are so much more voluminous than their accompanying LOX tanks, I suspect the plan for this new proposal is to follow the Syklab model and just leave the LOX tank alone rather than try some harebrained way of attempting to convert it into a marginal addition to the workshop’s habitable volume. There’s this concept in engineering known as a point of diminishing returns…

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    “In fairness, I don’t think either the Centaur or ACES tanks are metal balloons either.”

    Yes they are, Tory called it a balloon because that is slang for pressure stabilized tank:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCceCh68oos @32:00

    “The stainless steel thin walled propellant tanks are pressure stabilized, and give Centaur an excellent energy to weight ratio.”

    http://www.ulalaunch.com/uploads/docs/Published_Papers/Upper_Stages/TheCentaurUpperStageVehicleHistory.pdf

  • Jeff2Space

    Yes, you’re right, the S-IVB was the 2nd stage on the Saturn IB.

    Considering that the idea was considered, and then dropped, for Skylab and has not been used since, I’m in agreement with you. I see more promise in inflatables/expandables like from Bigelow Aerospace than I do in “wet workshops”.

  • duheagle

    I stand corrected.

    And it seems the S-IVB was similarly designed. All these stages seem to rely on upper and lower stiffening rings plus tank pressure for their stiffness.

    Interestingly, the LH2 tank of the S-IVB seems to have had its insulation applied inside the tank rather than sprayed on the outside.

    One can’t help wondering whether seven now-dead people might still be alive and the Shuttle, itself, still in service if such a design had been employed for the Shuttle External Tank.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    The insulation on S-IVB was a huge headache. I think they would want to avoid that going to full ET scale. The spray on foam wasn’t really the issue for ET but the manually applied fitted pieces such as the bipod ramp. They could have done without those and had some more boil off, but then risking ice accumulation. They would have been better to have more substantive material that was not just glued but installed with fasteners to the tanks.