With plans afoot for long-term deep space missions within the next few decades, NASA needs to address the issue of how to protect astronauts from the ravages of the universe.

Officials from the space agency have proposed that a manned mission to Mars could take place by the 2030s, so it is high time that it came up with deep space habitats in which astronauts could live. One thing is for certain, the potential habitats will have to be highly complex pieces of engineering, writes James Vincent for The Verge.

NASA Deep Space Habitats
Photo by binababy123

NextSTEP initiative in second stage

As a result NASA has called for companies to submit their designs for deep space habitats. Under the terms of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP), private companies have been asked to make ground-based prototypes of their designs. A number of requirements are in place, including a capacity for basic life support, fire safety technology and radiation mitigation.

Now the space agency has selected six partners for the second part of the NextSTEP program. Among the partners are familiar names Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems, Bigelow Aerospace, and Nanoracks.

“NASA is increasingly embracing public-private partnerships to expand capabilities, and opportunities in space,” said director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES), Jason Crusan, in a NASA press release fin 2015, when the program was announced. “Our NextSTEP partners commit their own corporate resources toward the development – making them a true partner in the spaceflight economy.”

Deep space habitats a focus

A few of the companies will build habitation modules, and others will work on communication infrastructure, propulsion systems and other areas. The habitation modules would be part of any future manned mission to Mars.

Boeing has already developed systems that are now in use on board the International Space Station. The company plans to use its experience to inform the development of a new deep space habitat, which will involve “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.”

For its part Lockheed Martin will refurbish a multi-purpose logistics module that it developed in the past. Orbital ATK will also make use of an existing design, the initial cislunar habitat concept that was itself based on the Cygnus spacecraft.

Rockets also need development

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems will modify its Dream Chaser module and add an inflatable fabric module and life support systems. Bigelow Airspace LLC has plans to make a 330-cubic-meter inflatable habitat known as the XBASE. According to NASA, “the testing conducted on this platform will advance approaches for deep space missions and serve as a basis for commercialization in low-Earth orbit.”

NanoRacks plans to make a habitat from an existing launch vehicle’s second stage, which the company believes could be a low cost solution to the habitat problem.

However NASA also needs to work on how it is going to get the modules to Mars. As it stands the space agency is working on new rockets, but it sounds like they will be behind schedule.

This month a federal report on the Mars mission suggested that the Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule are behind schedule. This means that the current launch dates look far too ambitious, but things are sure to develop in coming years.