NASA Begins Testing Habitation Prototypes

Habitation concept interior. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — Over the next several months, NASA will conduct a series of ground tests inside five uniquely designed, full-size, deep space habitat prototypes. The mockups, constructed by five American companies, offer different perspectives on how astronauts will live and work aboard the Gateway – the first spaceship designed to stay in orbit around the Moon, providing the critical infrastructure needed for exploration, science and technology demonstrations on the lunar surface.

NASA doesn’t plan to select one habitat prototype to advance to flight – rather, the tests will help NASA evaluate the design standards, common interfaces, and requirements for a future U.S. Gateway habitat module, while reducing risks for eventual flight systems.

“These tests were formulated so that we can do a side-by-side comparison of very different and innovative concepts from U.S. industry,” said Marshall Smith, who leads human lunar exploration programs at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “While we won’t dictate a specific design when we procure the U.S. habitat, we will enter the procurement phase with far less risk because of the knowledge we gain from these tests.”

NASA assembled a team from across the agency and from U.S. industry to conduct these tests. Engineers and technicians will analyze habitat system capabilities and performance proposed by each prototype concept, while human factors teams consider layout and ergonomics to optimize efficiency and performance. During the tests, future Gateway flight operators at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will collect actual live telemetry streams from each prototype. Flight operators will monitor habitat performance and support realistic mission activities as astronauts conduct “day-in-the-life” procedures within each habitat prototype, providing their perspectives as potential crew members who may one day live and work aboard the Gateway.

In addition to the physical enclosure, each company has outfitted their prototype with the basic necessities to support humans during deep space expeditions—including environmental control and life support systems, avionics, sleeping quarters, exercise equipment, and communal areas.

The Prototypes

The NextSTEP Habitation effort began in 2015 with four companies completing year-long concept studies. Those studies set the foundation for prototype development from 2016-2018—this time with five companies submitting concepts. Their prototype approaches are listed below, as well as a concept study outline from a sixth company, NanoRacks:

Lockheed Martin – Testing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Concept image of Lockheed Martin’s Gateway concept featuring their habitat design. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The Lockheed Martin prototype is based on a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), which was originally designed to provide logistics capabilities for the International Space Station. The design leverages the capabilities of Lockheed’s robotic planetary spacecraft and the Orion capsule that will transport astronauts to and from the Gateway. The prototype includes a reconfigurable space that could support a variety of missions, and combines hardware prototyping and software simulation during the test.

Northrop Grumman – Testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Texas

Concept image of Northrop Grumman’s Gateway concept featuring their habitat design. (Credits: Northrop Grumman)

Northrop Grumman’s prototype leverages the company’s Cygnus spacecraft that delivers supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus took its maiden flight in 2013, and is already human-rated. Northrop Grumman’s habitat mockup focuses on providing a comfortable, efficient living environment as well as different internal configuration possibilities.

Boeing – Testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama

Concept image Boeing’s Gateway concept featuring their habitat design. (Credits: Boeing)

Proven space station heritage hardware is the key ingredient in Boeing’s Exploration Habitat Demonstrator. Named the prime space station contractor in 1993, the company developed multiple space station elements. Their demonstrator will leverage heritage assets, with a focus on optimizing interior volume, with isolated areas offering the capability to use different atmospheres for payloads without impacting cabin atmosphere.

Sierra Nevada Corporation – Testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas

Concept image of Sierra Nevada’s Gateway concept featuring their habitat design. (Credits: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

Sierra Nevada’s Large Inflatable Fabric Environment (LIFE) habitat is designed to launch in a compact, “deflated” configuration, then inflate once it’s in space. The benefit of inflatables (also called expandables) is their final configuration is capable of providing much larger living space than traditional rigid structures, which are limited in size by the payload volume of the rocket used to launch it. The LIFE Prototype inflates to 27 ft in diameter and simulates three floors of living areas.

Bigelow Aerospace – Testing at Bigelow Aerospace, North Las Vegas, Nevada

Concept image Bigelow’s Gateway concept featuring their habitat design. (Credits: Bigelow Aerospace)

Bigelow’s B330 prototype is an expandable module that expands in space, as its name suggests, to provide 330 cubic meters of livable area. Bigelow sent a smaller module, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the space station in 2015, where astronauts expanded the structure live on NASA Television with compressed air tanks. The BEAM completed a two-year demonstration aboard the station, proving soft-goods resilience to the harsh space environment. Following its demonstration period, NASA extended BEAM’s time aboard the station to become a storage unit.

NanoRacks – Concept Study

Concept image of NanoRack’s habitat concept docked to the International Space Station. (Credits: NanoRacks)

NanoRacks has proposed yet another concept to maximize habitable volume for Gateway astronauts. The company’s idea is to refurbish and repurpose a spent rocket propellant tank, leveraging the natural vacuum of space to flush the tank of residual propellants. The company completed a feasibility study outlining the concept and next plans to develop full-scale prototypes demonstrating robotics development, outfitting and systems integration to convert the tank into a deep space habitat.

Operational – Driven Engineering

“This prototyping approach allows us to design, build, test and refine the habitat long before the final flight version is developed,” said NASA astronaut Mike Gernhardt, principal investigator of the agency’s habitation prototype test series. “We are using this operational-driven engineering approach to gain an early understanding of exactly what we need to address the mission, thereby reducing risk and cost.”

Using this approach, the builders, operators, and future users of the Gateway work together to evaluate concepts earlier and more completely, which helps NASA move forward to the Moon as early as possible.

The Gateway will be a temporary home and office for astronauts farther in space than humans have ever been before, and will be a home base for astronaut expeditions on surface of the Moon, and for future human missions to Mars. The NextSTEP approach bolsters American leadership in space, and will help drive an open, sustainable and agile lunar architecture.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    The expandable modules are likely to be launched empty. Can the Nanoracks equipment be used to transport and fit the furnishings of the Bigelow and Sierra Nevada designs?

  • windbourne

    If we are going to have this cluster, I’m hoping that either SnC or Bigelow wins.
    inflatables make the most sense.

  • Jeff Smith

    I don’t understand launching an inflatable empty. All the skilled workers to install equipment and all the test equipment to ensure everything works is here on the Earth. If you can’t install everything beforehand and just collapse the living/movement spaces (like the slide outs on an RV), I don’t think inflatables are worth doing.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Walls would have to pop up like a pop book. Walkways would need polls to support them like tents.

  • passinglurker

    Counterpoint a habitat based on existing and active tooling such as for a logistics craft or propellant tank would make more financial sense, mass and volume budgets permitting.

  • Saturn1300

    2024? They had better ditch this and put all the money in a Apollo style mission. Only way. Why waste time and money on a Gateway? Plans have changed NASA. Quit wasting time and change. How long to refurbish a surplus Apollo Lander or build a new one? They do not have time to ask for bids. So say we do not have time. Let the centers do it. They had better get their ass in gear, if they are going to do what Pence wants. Never make it. NASA has too much inertia. They are not fast. Maybe the FAA could do it. They did Ares 1x fast. They had better copy that project. The commercial people got next to nothing. In a year or 2 they say they will land and last for a few days. Not even as good as China. LOL.

  • windbourne

    Bigelow is already tooled. They have made a ba330.

  • Paul451

    I guess. There’s no point to LOP-G, so having a large empty volume and minimal equipment would give it more “show” and look like progress, even though it’s a backwards step.

  • Paul451

    Prop tank tooling is not relevant to hab design. Completely different structure for the skin of the pressure vessels (and no other points of commonality).

  • passinglurker

    And how much work have they done to pay off on that tooling? how much more work is available to them? there is simply less business for an expandable hab whereas a traditional pressure vessel has multiple applications to diffuse the fixed costs.

  • passinglurker

    Skylab would beg to differ, and even still my point about having commonality between habs and logistical craft still remain.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    I disagree. 2024 is when SLS and Orion are due to deliver ESPRIT to LOP-G. In space refuelling of the lunar landers is likely to be very useful. Due to the timescales we cannot manufacture sufficient additional SLS to take the astronauts and their landers to the Moon. So the 2024 manned lunar mission will be using Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Atlas V launch vehicles. Due to insufficient payload size the propellant, lander descent stage, ascent stage and cabin will have to be assembled and fuelled near the Moon. The LOP-G’s Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) will provide a good rendezvous point.

  • windbourne

    Not sure. But my understanding is that inflatables are cheaper than metals.

  • windbourne

    Another SLS in the making.

  • passinglurker

    They are cheaper to launch because they are lighter for a given volume, and therefore you can of course launch them on a cheaper vehicle, but like I said mass and volume permitting wouldn’t a hab with commonality to other products be cheaper since each unit is absorbing less fixed costs associated with its production? Especially if its something like logistical craft which are also fitted for docking, berthing, and life support.

  • Paul_Scutts

    This is the go, windbourne. Five years, no problem. 🙂 Regards, Paul.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/57ae89a2280d43f714e6ecccda5b4a3e28cfb81976a6ce061796897096cf0916.jpg

  • pathfinder_01

    The idea is that an inflatable is less mass for the volume and can fit into smaller rocket fairings. The downside is that you may need to install things,, but then again you are working inside(not spacewalking).

  • pathfinder_01

    Actually inflatables cost less than traditional pressure vessels. And while it is possible to make a rocket tank into a hab it is less than ideal(i..e. different structure.) They are also cheaper to manufacture.

  • Paul451

    Due to insufficient payload size the propellant, lander descent stage, ascent stage and cabin will have to be assembled and fuelled near the Moon.

    The limitations in the lander proposal are due to LOP-G itself. It adds well over 1km/s to each leg of the descent/ascent. Hardly a tick in the “plus” column.

    (Additionally, AIUI, the lunar refuelling will be handled remotely, nowhere near LOP-G. Probably performed between missions when the station is uncrewed.)

  • Paul451

    That was the case for “hard” segments of the ISS. They were launched empty (they maxed out the Shuttle’s launch capacity) and equipment was installed in latter missions.

  • pathfinder_01

    I theory yes, in reality the only logistical craft that NASA can use would be Cygnus and it is both small and not designed for being in space longer than a year. It could be pressed in to service, but it is going to take modifications such that the pressure vessel would be the least of the problems.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    I believe the Gateway should be in low lunar orbit. Using the same space station for both the Moon and Mars is not working.

  • Paul451

    LOP-G can’t be in LLO because Orion can’t reach LLO, because SLS doesn’t have the ability to launch it into LLO with enough fuel for it to get back.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Reusable landers need a fuel tanker sending to the LOP-G. Refuel the Orion in the same way.

  • Paul451

    The service module can’t be refuelled.

  • Jeff2Space

    The expandables can be launched with some equipment in the “core” of the module. At least that has always been the plan for Bigelow modules.

  • Jeff2Space

    Apollo was cancelled because it was hideously expensive and was not much more than “flags and footprints”. You’re proposing a repeat of Apollo, which would also be cancelled.

    As far as building Apollo era hardware today, that dead horse has been beaten enough. Nothing from the Apollo era would meet NASA’s safety requirements today. Plus all the suppliers are pretty much gone. And even for the ones that do exist, none of the people from that era are there today, so much knowledge has been lost. And even if all that wasn’t lost, all the tooling is gone and all the electronics, materials, and etc. are all completely obsolete. Apollo ain’t ever coming back. Please stop beating this dead horse.

    As for Ares 1-X, it was nothing more than a space shuttle 4 segment SRB with a dummy 5th segment on top. On top of that was a dummy 2nd stage, a boilerplate CEV/Orion, and so forth and so on. It was little more than a stunt to show “progress” and had extremely little in common with proposed Ares 1 hardware.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    NASA has 3 years to correct the design of the Orion.

    Send the refuelling tanker to the LOP-G before the Orion is launched.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    That is where the pop-ups come in. They fold out of the core to form the walls and floors of rooms.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1cYC9QMCZ4

  • Paul451

    Orion’s been 15 years in the making. And it’s still weak, cramped, short-duration, and under-powered. I can’t see NASA/ESA figuring out refuelling the service module in 3 years.

  • Paul451

    Also in rigid end-caps.

  • Paul451

    Cute concept. But good luck getting any kind of seal between those joins. (The house, not the space-station-module.) My Dad lives in a transportable that was shipped in two parts and permanently joined on site, on a fixed foundation. Guess where every problem occurs.

    Okay for temporary structures, like displays/pavilions for events (and I’ve seen a limited version of that on truck trailers), but not for permanent homes. (Again, the foldahouse, not the space-station-module.)

  • Vladislaw

    SLS is one n done … Gateway would be around for a couple decades.

  • Vladislaw

    “there is simply less business for an expandable hab ”

    That is simply not true. Bigelow presented many things you can do with inflatables where habitat is required. From ships to stations to landing on Luna as a base module.

    https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2014/02/affordable-habitats-more-buck-rogers-less-money-bigelow/

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a30cfdb0fc11145891a494dbca982619c767a8aeca061bca22bfcdb52babc375.jpg

  • Vladislaw
  • passinglurker

    The problem is a present lack of demand for habs at all, but who knows maybe working with the materials involved is so much cheaper it makes up for the low demand

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    NASA has two speeds – race and government bureaucracy. It is time for the Orion team to start racing. BFR may not be ready in 3 years but the Dragon 2.1 might be. The CST-100 team may like to make a lunar version.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Fortunately the joints would be inside the space-station-module so they do not have to be air tight.

  • Robert G. Oler

    these all should be tried

  • gunsandrockets

    I bet SLS lasts for a minimum of two launches, up to a maximum of five launches.

  • gunsandrockets

    In Defense of Gateway:

    Economical manned missions to the lunar surface are going to require one or more space rendezvous events somewhere between LEO to the lunar surface. Of the various options, NRHO rendezvous makes more sense than LLO rendezvous. NASA is right about Gateway. (And no, this is not some backhanded way of supporting SLS or Orion. I oppose SLS.)

    The problem with LLO rendezvous is it requires bigger launch vehicles (or more launches) than NRHO. That problem is in part what sunk Project Constellation, NASA administrator Griffin’s grand design of ‘Apollo on steroids’. Yes, LLO rendezvous can use a smaller lander than NRHO, but that is a false economy. LLO still ends up having to use a larger launch vehicle than NRHO rendezvous.

    Yes, NRHO rendezvous needs a bigger lander than LLO, but the smaller LLO lander needs more delta-V to get from Earth into LLO in the first place, so its a wash at best. In addition, the Crew/Service-Module situation is even worse for LLO rendezvous. Because not only does a CSM need more delta-V to get to LLO compared to NRHO, a CSM also has to be larger to return to Earth from LLO.

  • gunsandrockets

    Re: habitation prototypes

    I’m torn. I like the spartan minimalism of the Grumman proposal, with the Cygnus style beer-keg modules.

    But I would really like to see an inflatable win too!

  • Vladislaw

    Why demand a habitat BEFORE you have operational transportation systems to put your crew on them. As Bigelow stated he wants two operational DOMESTIC service providers. He doesn’t want a single string fault system in place like the space shuttle was. One bad hair day and your facility grinds to a halt.

  • Saturn1300

    So smarty pants, what is your proposal. Lockheed said they could do it with part of the Gateway and Orion. Do you think that L-M can do anything fast? They have Orion, But what about a lander? Never happen in 5 years. Apollo was simple. A capsule an service section. A lander and buggy underneath. Separate and dock. All on 1 launch.

    Musk said he hoped to be ready. I only said Ares-1x was fast and to use that method. So do you know more about Musk than Musk? He says he hopes to be ready. The elements still exist. They can copy and use new electronics. But you may be correct. It may be impossible to do by ’24. Is that what you are saying? I am not sure what your comment was about. Musk might do it. He is the only that might do it. His projects slip so much though. Like heavy. The original NASA schedule will continue. ’28.

  • Paul451

    Other than the one time we all know about, do you have any other example of NASA “racing”? This NASA is not the agency that flew Apollo.

  • Paul451

    As for Ares 1-X, it was nothing more than a space shuttle 4 segment SRB with a dummy 5th segment on top. On top of that was a dummy 2nd stage, a boilerplate CEV/Orion, and so forth and so on. It was little more than a stunt to show “progress” and had extremely little in common with proposed Ares 1 hardware.

    And it cost them over a billion freakin’ dollars to launch.

    SpaceX did Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Dragon cargo for less than that. Starting with nothing but PICA and Fastrac cancelled NASA programs.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Try NASA’s response to the 2010 Mine Disaster in Chile. From the outside it looks like NASA went into ‘race’ mode. Although it did have to be asked.

    https://www.nasa.gov/news/chile_assistance.html

  • Saturn1300

    Your not staying on subject. How do you say to land on the Moon in 2024? What has Ares to do with that? It will be SLS or Super Heavy. Why switch?