Aerospace company Sierra Nevada Corporation showed off its latest prototype of an inflatable space habitat module that can be used to transport astronauts for long periods, such as from Earth to Mars.
Sierra Nevada’s prototype is the result of a contract signed with NASA that dates back to 2016 under the NextSTEP program. The intention provides half a dozen companies the resources to develop a space station that could one day orbit the Moon.
The program, in a sense, allowed multiple commercial space companies to compete in terms of developing technologies that NASA would like to commission for one of its space missions.
Sierra Nevada’s latest demonstration at NASA’s Johnson Space Center is for a space habitat, which the astronauts will be floating in as it makes its way to its destination.
The company’s space habitat is large. The prototype is currently a 26-feet-across inflatable module that’s roughly one third the size of the International Space Station in volume. Specifically, it measures more than 8 meters long, and with a diameter of 8 meters has an internal volume of 300 cubic meters.
What makes Sierra Nevada’s habitat module unique is its expandable or inflatable design that enables a fairly large spacecraft blast off from Earth in a compressed and easily-transportable manner.
There is a multi-layered fabric material that enables the habitat module to shrink and bloat at the astronaut’s desire. The module can be compressed for launch and expanded once in space.
The habitat module can fit within a standard payload fairing used for launch vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan booster, or NASA’s Space Launch System. It is light enough for any of those rockets to launch to the Moon.
“We’re offering a huge amount of volume in a small amount of space,” said five-time NASA astronaut Steve Lindsey, who is vice president of the company’s Space Exploration Systems.
The space module, once inflated, can be outfitted to become a reasonable three-story habitat in space. Compared to a “giant bouncy house” by the Houston Chronicle, it could house a team of up to four astronauts during long journeys through space. Three separate stories offer them enough living space and comfort that existential here on Earth.
“Concepts like these are helping us define and enable new architects and new opportunities… for future activities onward to Mars,” said John McCullough, director of Johnson’s Exploration Integration and Science Directorate, at a Wednesday news conference.
However, the module is not heading to space any time soon. In July, aerospace corporation Northrop Grumman received the NASA contract to build the first habitat module for NASA’s planned Lunar Gateway.
Under NextSTEP-2, NASA chose Northrop Grumman from a pool of other companies from an August 2016 competition along with five other companies: Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NanoRacks, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada Corporation.
“We would really have liked a chance to compete on that, by the way,” Steve Lindsey, vice president of Sierra Nevada’s Space Exploration Systems, added. “But it is what it is.”
Besides, other than a comfortable living space for astronauts when they do make the travel to Mars, a recent National Space Council meeting has indicated future potential work regarding the use of nuclear thermal propulsion.
Nuclear propulsion promises to cut travel time from Earth to Mars by half. Instead of spending an approximate of 9 months in between the two planets, the new propulsion system can accomplish it in just little as 3 to 4 months.
“If we are to fulfill these objectives to establish a long-term presence on the moon and to send the first crewed mission to Mars, nuclear power is arguably the most important to enable these bold goals,” according to Rex Geveden, president and CEO of BWX Technologies and also a panelist during the sixth meeting of the National Space Council. The Virginia-based company supplies nuclear components and fuel to the government.
For now, however, it is likely that Northrop Grumman will proceed to be commissioned by NASA for its Artemis mission in 2024, but the Sierra Nevada is still holding out hope that its intuitive technology is used in other missions.