Posted on September 13th, 2016

Reaching Orbit – NextSTEP

BoeingAbove is an artist’s rendering of Boeing’s prototype habitation module for the NextSTEP Program. (Credit: Boeing)

NASA is working hard on the Orion spacecraft to send astronauts into space and eventually to Mars, the next question to be answered is what to do with them once they get there? In search of options, NASA is working with six different companies to come up with prototypes for deep space habitats. Once humans finally make the long journey to Mars or deep space, they’ll need a temporary home to protect them from radiation, provide living and research space. The journey itself is long, perilous and expensive, so once they arrive they may very well stay for a long duration. They’ll need a place to store their cargo along with food and other necessary supplies without the opportunity for restock missions.

The search for habitation modules is an important part of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. NextSTEP is a partnership between both the public and private sector that seeks out commercial companies for the development of deep space technologies. All of the projects are intended to support manned missions to cislunar space, the area between near Earth and just past the moon. Each selected company has 24 months to come up with either a concept study or ground prototype for a deep space habitat. The habitation module needs to have the ability to connect with the Orion capsule and sustain a crew of four for 60 days in cislunar space and test its capabilities.

EPConcept image of the Ad Astra Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine for the NextSTEP Program. (Credit: Ad Astra Rocket Company)

Along with the habitation module, NextSTEP also solicits companies for advanced propulsion systems using high power electric propulsion (EP). Current EP systems generate 5 kilowatts of power, NASA is looking to improve the existing systems so they exceed 300 kilowatts or more. Partners will need to demonstrate an EP system with greater efficiency and higher power for long term space flights. There is also a NextSTEP award for small satellites that will launch with the Space Launch System during Orion’s Exploration Mission and will study the lunar surface.

To be honest, I’m not generally a fan of the privatization of science and exploration. When your goals are for financial gain and not the advancement of technology for the purpose of better understanding our Universe and the science that drives it, then you lose sight of the goals that I believe should drive space exploration. However, with limited funding NASA works within its confines to continue its mission to ‘reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind’ by working with commercial companies. I cannot help but lament when the pursuit of science and understanding is not incentive enough for further investment in space exploration.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163
katie@apollomapping.com

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