NextSTEP Partners Develop Ground Prototypes of Deep Space Habitats

Concept of Lockheed Martin’s NextSTEP-2 habitat with Orion. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — Through exploration, NASA is broadening horizons, enhancing knowledge, and improving our way of life. Our efforts to explore and discover the universe are increasing in both scope and duration. The Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket in the world, soon will launch the Orion spacecraft and its crew deeper into space than ever before. Expanding humanity’s presence farther into the solar system also requires advancements in the development of habitats and the systems to keep astronauts safe as they live and work in deep space for long periods of time.

In August 2016, NASA selected six U.S. companies to help expand knowledge, commercial capabilities and opportunities in space by developing full-sized ground prototypes and concepts for deep space habitats under the second Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Broad Agency Announcement, or NextSTEP-2. NextSTEP establishes unique public-private partnerships that seek to advance commercial development of space while advancing deep space exploration capabilities to support more extensive human space flight missions in the area of space near the moon that will be the proving ground for Mars.

“The NextSTEP partnerships are a large contribution to the dual objectives of advancing deep space habitation development and stimulating commercial activities in low-Earth orbit,” said Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

An effective habitat comprises a pressurized volume plus an integrated array of complex systems and components that include a docking capability, environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS), logistics management, radiation mitigation and monitoring, fire safety technologies, and crew health capabilities. The ground prototypes will allow NASA and the partners to evaluate configurations of the habitat, how the various systems interact together and with other capabilities like propulsion modules and airlocks, and will provide platforms to test and ensure the standards and common interfaces being considered are well thought out.

The six selected partners are:

Bigelow Aerospace LLC of North Las Vegas, will develop and test a prototype of XBASE (Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement), a 330-cubic-meter expandable habitat and test platform for deep space hardware. The testing conducted on this platform will advance approaches for deep space missions and serve as a basis for commercialization in low-Earth orbit. XBASE is based on the B-330 expandable spacecraft for the mission-specific purpose of attaching to the International Space Station as a visiting vehicle. XBASE leverages the lessons learned from the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a 16-cubic-meter expandable spacecraft, which was deployed on the space station in June 2016.

Boeing of Houston is developing a modular habitat system that leverages experience in designing, developing, assembling on-orbit and safely operating the International Space Station for more than 15 years. This includes the production of a full-scale habitat that will provide design analysis and high-fidelity demonstration and test capability to simulate how humans can safely live and work in deep space for extended periods of time. This ground demonstrator will test and validate interface standards, systems functionality and critical exploration technologies.

Lockheed Martin of Denver will refurbish a multi-purpose logistics module, like those that were used to carry equipment and supplies to and from the station aboard the space shuttle, into a full-scale habitat prototype that will include integrated avionics and ECLSS. The high-fidelity ECLSS prototype will provide risk reduction and form and fit testing. The avionics prototype will prove data communication between the habitat and Orion and demonstrate crew interfaces between a deep space habitat and Orion. Lockheed Martin will also use virtual prototyping to validate the habitat module’s form, fit and function.

Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia will mature the mission architecture and design of their initial cislunar habitat concept, based on the Cygnus spacecraft that currently services the space station. Orbital ATK will create their prototype to support testing of critical interfaces with Orion and other modules. They will mature the Cygnus-derived habitat design for long-term operation in deep space and establish a proposed roadmap that leads to Mars exploration.

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems of Louisville, Colorado, will study and refine a flexible architecture and concept of operations for a deep space habitat that leverages three to four commercial launches to construct a modular long-duration habitat. Their prototype will be based on the Dream Chaser cargo module as a foundation for the SNC NextSTEP-2 proposal and will allow SNC to assess their ability to meet the criteria for each operation phase and identify risks. After launch from the Dream Chaser spacecraft, the SNC NextSTEP-2 module will be combined with a large inflatable fabric environment module, ECLSS system, and propulsion system. The design and prototype will confirm the proof-of-concept and ensure critical subsystems seamlessly integrate together.

NanoRacks of Webster, Texas, in conjunction with its partners, Space Systems Loral and the United Launch Alliance, referred to collectively as the Ixion Team, will conduct a comprehensive feasibility study regarding the conversion of an existing launch vehicle’s upper stage, or propellant segment, into a pressurized habitable volume in space. The feasibility study will provide insight into this innovative and low-cost approach that can be used for any rocket system, including SLS.

The activities of these NextSTEP awards will inform the acquisition and deployment approach for the next phase of flight systems for deep space including important aspects such as standards and interfaces, module configurations, and options for deployment utilizing SLS and Orion and commercial vehicles. In addition to U.S. Industry, NASA is in discussions on collaborative opportunities with our international partners to enable a robust fully operational deep space habitation capability.

NextSTEP is managed by the Advanced Exploration Systems Division (AES) in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. AES is pioneering innovative approaches and public-private partnerships to rapidly develop prototype systems, advance key capabilities, and validate operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.


  • I’m excited for the Lunar ISS as the next phase in permanent expansion beyond earth. I just hope we can figure out how to “use” it effectively sooner than it took us with ISS (tourists, cubesats, some neat cameras, 3D printing, etc.).

  • Robert G. Oler


  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    More pork for the traditional incumbents. If they were serious, then they’d be fast-tracking Bigelow, space-based fuel storage, long duration vehicles. The list goes on. As RGO stated, ‘useless’.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    NASA cannot use a Bigelow spacestation until he gets his life support (ECLSS) to work. The XBASE is a B330 spacestation in its own right – NASA will flight test by attaching it to the ISS.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    This is basically the same press release NASA issued a year ago. Does that mean no progress has been made on NextSTEP-2?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I have a perfect experiment to run. Put people, animals, and plants on the thing, and see what happens to their bodies, brains, DNA, and health in general. That will go a long way towards answering the question as to whether we can colonize the solar system with our current technology base or if we have to employ nuclear power to haul vast radiation shielding and or be the absolute masters of genetic engineering and nano fabrication in order to backup and repair the damage done by ionizing radiation and pan-galactic gargle blasts that astronauts can see when they close their eyes, should the naysayers be right.

  • Zaphod Beeblebrox for NASA Administrator!

  • passinglurker

    Bigelow’s B330/XBASE is almost 20 tons the baseline for DSG modules riding on SLS is 7.5-10 tons so I wouldn’t hold my breath on a fast track.

    Ultimately this is study and information generating exercise in order to assess the potential manufacturers and their methods before piecing together a more comprehensive plan for a cislunar space station. This may seem slow and tedious but it isn’t useless.

  • passinglurker

    lies and slander ;P

  • windbourne

    I thought that he was using ECLSS from elsewhere. No?
    Besides, I would think that he should be able to attach a unit to the ISS and then build in the rest. Such an approach would them further test things, give them space, etc.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    20 tonne is less than the 35-40 tonne that SLS can send to high lunar orbit. So an entire Bigelow B330 spacestation could be launched on a single SLS. The crew in an Orion would have to be launched on a second SLS, possibly a year later.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Buying an ECLSS from Orbitec. That explain this Twitter posting

    Robert Bigelow (@RobertTBigelow)
    Replying to @RobertTBigelow

    If initiated soon, a lunar depot could be in operation by the end of 2020.

    6:24 PM – Mar 1, 2017

    So XBASE could be attached to the ISS in 3-4 years time.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    That implies you do not expect one of these modules to become the habitat module of a Mars transfer vehicle. The equipment will need to have worked in space for at least a year before NASA will risk it on a 3 year voyage.

  • passinglurker

    Not possible. Not only are SLS launches slow and expensive, but until block2 is funded and ready they are finite. There are only so many spares left over from the shuttle program they aren’t going to want to waste a block1b only filling it to half.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    The current proposal is to use 4 SLS to launch the Deep Space Gateway. Four modules each with an Orion. Reducing that to two SLS will allow the other 2 SLS to be used for other things such as landing on the Moon.

    There are plenty of other things that can be launched on the SLS to make up the payload mass. The simplest is extra DSG modules like extra docking ports, refuelling tanks, repair hanger for the landers and long range communications equipment.

  • windbourne

    3-4 years is WAY too long.
    It should be a year just to add 1 to the ISS. From there, they can bring up the parts and fit it in there.

  • windbourne

    1+B to send a BA-330 to lunar orbit is pretty expensive.

  • passinglurker

    First how do you visit the DSG if the remaining 2 launches are taken up as cargo?

    Second land on the moon with what?

    Third where is the money for these extra modules coming from?

    The thing you don’t get about pre-Block2 SLS is that its all busy work to strum up money and jobs for old shuttle contractors. They’rejust rationing out old parts and trying to do something as cheap as possible to keep the senators happy while they maybe scrounge up plans for real payloads on the real rocket in the 2030’s. The DSG plan does the least beyond flying the pork barrels so it’s the cheapest hence its nasa’s plan for the next decade or until they are given a directive that says otherwise.

  • Robert G. Oler

    no I dont. nothing we have today will be on a human Mars flight when it happens in 20 or so years…

    for a Mars flight to have even the smallest chance of success we need to have several technologies in hand, we dont now

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    ONLY 3-4 years is the equivalent of NASA running.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    One of those technologies is an ECLSS that can work for 3 years. NextSTEP should give this. The ISS’s life support equipment need frequent repairs so it cannot be used.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    > First how do you visit the DSG if the remaining 2 launches are taken up as cargo?

    They are not cargo flights but Orion flights. My last paragraph was items for the filling up the first SLS flight.

    > Second land on the moon with what?

    This is off topic but the Lunar CATALYST is producing small cargo landers within the next 2 years. It has also started work on a large reusable lander. The large lander is being developed by ULA and Masten Space. It could deposit cargo or a human cabin on the lunar surface. How a lander with a 25 tonne payload gets to lunar orbit is a very interesting question to ask, particularly in front of SLS people. (Currently no one is working on the cabin.)

    > The thing you don’t get about pre-Block2 SLS is that its all busy work to strum up money and jobs for old shuttle contractors. {snip}

    The rest of DSG may be busy work but it is getting close to being a Moon mission.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    But still cheaper than the 4+B NASA is planning to spend getting the DSG into lunar orbit.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    That’s highly improbable

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Good question.

  • That comment shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how space hardware is designed, built, tested and integrated.

  • windbourne

    No. Since I have worked on various projects including Mars global surveyor.
    But the ba330 has been built and I believe tested. As such, I believe it is possible to add a stripped unit to ISS within a year or so.
    What has not been done is the inside equipment. For that, it has to be developed to the ba330, and ground tested. Then it can be brought up and added to the unit and fully test it.
    Ideally, core eclss would be added quickly, or even as part of the launch system. From there, they can add , sleeping quarters, kitchen, lavatory, perhaps a rest and/or study area. Another work area, etc.

    The point is, they need to get the core up there and test it while adding subsystems.

  • windbourne

    Yes, but BA is private space. Congress just needs to properly fund adding several private units to the ISS.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    The XBASE is so big it needs its own Atlas V to launch it. Launches have to be booked 1-2 years in advance. BEAM showed that anything human rated gets checked by an army of inspectors. Windbourne go through your own posting and add up the delays. Bigelow may as well wait until the spacestation is ready.

  • windbourne

    Ula has actually prebuilt several Atlas, though at this time, they have probably stopped. Spacex is looking pretty good.

  • Vladislaw

    Not so much work nonstop without servicing. But with supplies and a 3d printer can work for 3 years with no parts brought from earth.

  • Robert G. Oler

    why cannot this be done on ISS?

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    1. The ISS’s ECLSS was designed over 20 years ago. Replacing that would be highly disruptive.

    2. The XBASE is a B330 spacestation that pretends to be a module so it can be attached to the ISS. So the new ECLSS is being tested at the ISS, it will just have its own module. If anything goes wrong with the B330 ECLSS the astronauts can escape into the main ISS.

  • Robert G. Oler

    that is exactly what I meant 🙂 RGO

  • publiusr

    I’d like to see that.

    Personally, I want very large solar electric tugs using ISS tech that move SLS lofted payloads from LEO up to Lunar orbit. You can move very heavy objects over time. So the cis-lunar station can have 100 ton modules.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    The DSG’s PPE module is a thinly disguised SEP tug. If it is narrow (5m) a second one can go up on an ordinary launch vehicle. If wide (8m) it forms part of the SLS’s 130 tonne payload.

    To make the SEP tug viable I would add an arm to PPE#2 to help unloading, long range communications and stretch the fuel tank.

    The heavy items need transport would be the Moon base habitats.