The omnibus spending bill recently passed by Congress earmarks at least $55 million dollars in funds for NASA to build a deep-space habitat that will aid the US space agency with its ultimate goal of sending astronauts to Mars.
According to SpaceNews and Popular Science, the ambitious but not ambitiously named Deep Space Habitat would be a “habitation augmentation module” that would provide crew members with private quarters and exercise equipment for use during extended space flight missions.
Given the relatively small size of the Orion spacecraft that will be used to ferry NASA personnel to the Red Planet, a larger living space will allow them to take galactic pit-stops would likely be welcome, but reports indicate the project is still essentially in the planning stages.
Little progress to report thus far
Nonetheless, Congress has challenged NASA to figure it out, and to have a working prototype of whatever space habitat concept they come up with ready by 2018. Provided they can pull that off, the agency would test it out around the moon sometime in the 2020s—then use it to get to Mars in the 2030s.
The spending bill also requires that NASA provide Congress with a report on the progress of the program and how the funds have been spent within 180 days of it becoming law. To date, NASA has not detailed exactly how it plans to use the funding, and earlier this month, ISS director Sam Scimemi told SpaceNews that he was not aware of any immediate plans for the money.
When pressed for details, Scimemi said that it was “much too early” to go into detail about how the agency will develop its habitation module, or even what equipment and technologies will be required to operate such a facility. “As soon as I put a picture up there,” he added, “somebody is going to assume what the configuration is.” So for now, space enthusiasts must wait.
Can they make their 2018 deadline? Popular Science seems skeptical, noting that one of the big challenges they face will be to develop a module that can protect astronauts from space radiation without making the habitat too heavy. The current frontrunner appears to be an inflatable habitat built by Bigelow Aerospace that will soon be tested on the space station, they added.
Feature Image: Inspiration Mars