Congress Wants NASA To Develop A Deep Space Habitat For Mars Mission By 2018

NASA has received $55 million from Congress to develop living quarters no later than 2018 that can take astronauts future deep space missions. Earlier this month, the omnibus spending bill that was passed by lawmakers has increased the space agency’s funding in 2016 by $1.3 billion. The money would come from the Advanced Exploration Systems program, part of the Exploration Research and Development line item in the budget that received $350 million in the bill.

The agency has not explained how it will use that funding. Sam Scimemi, International Space Station director at NASA Headquarters, speaking at a Space Transportation Association luncheon on December 16, said he was not immediately aware of any specific plans for that funding.

The omnibus bill that specifies how much NASA gets in the following year actually reads: “NASA shall develop a prototype deep space habitation module within the advanced exploration systems program no later than 2018.” It also says that NASA needs to provide Congress a report within the first 180 days of 2016 detailing how those funds are being used to create the habitation module.

The Orion spacecraft that will drive astronauts to Mars has a diameter that’s about the length of a pickup truck. Considering that the astronauts’ journey to Mars will take at least 6 months, that’s not a lot of space.

Mars-bound astronauts will need a larger place to live, complete with private quarters and exercise equipment. NASA envisions the Orion capsule could link up to a habitation module in space, but right now they have no idea what that module could look like.

Over the last several months, NASA has increasingly stressed on the development of a habitation module that could be tested in cislunar space in the 2020s before sending it to Mars in the 2030s.

Scimemi envisions testing out the habitation module and other key technologies to take place during what he calls a “shakedown cruise” in cislunar space. This extensive testing, he hopes, should provide enough proof NASA is able to develop a proficient model for long-duration, human-led missions to Mars. “That is our big objective for cislunar space for human spaceflight,” he said.

NASA has resisted providing details about how it will develop that habitation module, or even its requirements. “It’s much too early for that,” Scimemi said. “As soon as I put a picture up there, somebody is going to assume what the configuration is.” However, whether NASA could have something ready by 2018 seems debatable. Shielding astronauts from space radiation while also maintaining a light weight will be one of the major challenges.

So far, Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable habitat stands out as a frontrunner–a test version of the habitat will soon be deployed on the International Space Station (ISS). Under its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, program, NASA has also awarded study contracts to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK, and other companies to study into potential habitat designs. It also awarded contracts to Dynetics, Hamilton Sundstrand and Orbital Technologies Corp. for specific module technologies, such as life support systems.

The NextSTEP contracts, valued at up to $1 million each and lasting for one year, will inform NASA’s plans for later habitat development work. “We plan to leverage the output of those studies to shape our plan and then go to a next round,” Scimemi said, adding that NASA hadn’t settled on the details of that next phase.

It looks like NASA will have speed up its game, and fast. The report requires NASA to revert with a status update about how it has allocated funds within 180 days of the bill becoming law, which happened on December 18.