The $1.1 Trillion dollar Omnibus spending bill passed by Congress two weeks ago included $55 million for NASA to design a deep space habitat by 2018 for astronauts to use on the planet Mars, asteroids or the Moon. Known as the Habitations Systems Project, the goal is to develop the next generation in sustainable living quarters. The habitats must allow for laboratories and workspaces as well. A mock-up of a concept demonstrator habitat is already under construction at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This design is based on modules currently used aboard the International Space Station, or ISS. Once tested, a full-sized version will be built complete with operational systems for evaluation.

NASA Deep Space Habitat

The three primary objectives in the Deep Space Habitat, DSH, program are, the first being to design and build an ISS-style pressurized lab and MultiPurpose Logistics Module, MPLM, for astronauts to work and live in space. Second, a utility tunnel or transfer tube which includes an airlock for conducting EVAs, extra-vehicular activities, or ′space walks′. Third and last, to design the DSH to ′stack′ with a Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle, or MMSEV, for astronauts to use for short-ranged trips and excursions. The design calls for the whole DSH to be some 56 feet in length and 16 feet in diameter.

At this stage in the DSH design program, engineers and scientists will not be concerned yet with adding the DSH stack with an Orion manned space vehicle nor with a cryogenic propulsion stage. That would come later as the DSH would be designed to be adaptable for a variety of deep space missions. These would include landing astronauts on Mars or on large asteroids, as well as orbital missions about either asteroids or larger bodies such as the Moon. The whole stack in such missions would include the Orion spacecraft on one end, connected directly to the MPLM, which is joined to the MMSEV via the utility tunnel. On the far end of the MMSEV would be the cryogenic propulsion stage.

NASA is already testing several other habitat designs for specific space missions. One such design known as Habitat X or, its proper name, the Advanced Exploration Systems Habitations System. Field testing for this design began in 2010 and includes a wheeled rover vehicle allowing astronauts to explore the surfaces of the Moon or Mars. In 2011, the University of Wisconsin won an annual college competition held by NASA for designing a sustainable habitat. Known as X-Hab, this design is much like a balloon, which is inflated to provide living and work space for astronauts. Both of these designs have been tested at NASA′s Desert Research and Technologies Studies, or DesertRATS.

While these demonstration prototypes will test the limits of providing the basic needs for astronauts living in deep space, such as food, air and water reclamation, and hygiene, other major challenges, like protection from radiation, will be worked on later. NASA hopes to establish a manned colony on Mars by 2030 and on the Moon before that. Both China and Russia are also developing the technology for establishing manned bases on the Moon and Mars, as early as 2025. So the race in space is on again! Will the NASA Deep Space Habitat be ready to put America back in the driver′s seat? We shall see.