If you put aside the risk of killer radiation and brain damage astronauts could face by venturing to Mars and deep space, there’s also the problem of how where they’re going to live for that epic journey and somehow stay sane.
Sierra Nevada Corporation recently showed off the full-scale prototype of its deep space habitat at the Johnson Space Center. It would actually allow an astronaut to move without stepping on someone else’s spacesuit. The proto was developed with funding from NASA’s NextSTEP-2 program, which financed SNC and four other companies to develop habitats that could go from orbiting the moon to being the place astronauts hang out as they float over to Mars.
Never mind that it looks roomy enough to fit six astronauts — astronauts will actually be living in SNC’s habitat (on Earth) for three days to evaluate how they feel about spending months on end inside this thing. The same will go for the habitat prototypes developed by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Bigelow Aerospace.
The advantage SNC already has over the other companies is the size of its model. It’s about 26 feet long, with a diameter of 26 feet and an internal volume of 984 cubic feet. It was possible to make it this huge because of a multi-layered fabric that compresses during launch and can fit into a standard payload fairing (like the type used for a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket of NASA’s SLS), and is light enough to send off to the moon. Once in space, it is free to expand and morph into a habitat with some pretty impressive volume.
There is one uncertainty. While there is speculation SNC’s habitat can be used for journeys to the moon or Mars (and possibly either or both), it doesn't actually have an official use yet. The brains behind this habitat module originally created it as a place for astronauts to live on the upcoming Lunar Gateway. However, what is so cool about the expandable living space is that it can be upsized and downsized to fit the mission, which could be anything from an extended stay in low-Earth or lunar orbit to a legit living space on the moon or Mars.
Now that NASA has had to fast-forward its moon plans, the Gateway itself is now being planned out as a place for astronauts to dock and take a breather on the way to and from the moon. As of now, it’s going to be a node kept alive by a power system, with a small attached habitat module that offers docking ports and basic life support for humans. Northrop Grumman won that one, but that doesn't mean SNC is out.
Sierra Nevada Corp. used this unveiling to show both NASA and future customers that it can fulfill a need for large but deceptively low-mass places to live in space. The company just needs NASA to give it some guidelines, such as how long astronauts are expected to live on the moon and whether the space agency will need a bigger habitat for the Lunar Gateway. Oh, and about Mars, they have to figure out whether a manned mission is actually happening.
We might have not figured out everything about preventing irreversible brain damage or blocking killer radiation yet, but if astronauts really are going to take off for Mars in this module, at least they will have enough room to kick back.
(via Ars Technica)