The inflatable habitat prototype SNC built for NASA's NextSTEP program. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is preparing to ship a prototype of an inflatable space habitat designed for lunar orbit and Mars missions to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

SNC built the habitat prototype for NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. The habitat is designed for stowage in the rocket fairing of NASA’s Space Launch System or a large commercial rocket. Once in orbit, it would inflate to become an 8.2-meter-wide habitat where astronauts would live and work.

“With an inflatable, you get a lot more volume and a lot more usable space for the crew to do their mission,” said Steve Lindsey, SNC Space Exploration Systems vice president and former NASA astronaut. “It’s designed for the Gateway but it’s also designed for an 1,100-day mission to Mars.”

SNC designed the habitat interior with three floors. Astronaut crews would live and work primarily on the top floor. The main floor is devoted to research with science and robotic workstations. The crew galley and toilets would be housed on the bottom floor.

In late April, SNC plans to ship the habitat to NASA Johnson for testing. There, NASA officials will send astronauts inside the habitat “to simulate several mission days to see how things work,” said Lindsey, who served as a pilot or mission commander on five spaceflight missions.

ILC Dover, a firm known for producing flexible materials for aerospace applications like spacesuits, worked with SNC to produce the habitat’s durable fabric. The SNC design is reminiscent of TransHab, an inflatable module ILC Dover developed in the early 2000s for International Space Station crew quarters. It was never flown.

A cutaway illustration of the habitat's three-floor interior. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
A cutaway illustration of the habitat’s three-floor interior. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
A cutaway illustration of the habitat’s three-floor interior. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

SNC has conducted extensive testing of a one-third scale model of its inflatable habitat, subjecting it to extremely high pressure to ensure the material and design can meet human spaceflight certification requirements.

High strength fabrics form the habitat’s pressurized interior bladder, which is surrounded by webbing to support structural loads. The habitat’s exterior is covered by layers of material strong enough to withstand the impact of micrometeorites and orbital debris, Lindsey said.

The habitat inflates around a circular core that houses its avionics and Astro Garden, a modular system for growing vegetables. SNC subsidiary Orbital Technologies Corp. built Veggie, the International Space Station produce garden.

SNC also has a partner, who it is not yet ready to name, helping with the habitat’s artificial intelligence. “The tricky part about AI is you never know where it’s going to go in the future,” Lindsey said. Preliminarily, SNC would like the voice-activated AI system to control lights, facilitate long-distance communications, offer schedule reminders and provide instructions for scientific experiments and repairs, meaning astronauts would not need to rely on computer screens for step-by-step instructions.

SNC is one of six companies working under NASA NextSTEP contracts to produce habitat designs or prototypes. The others are Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NanoRacks and Northrop Grumman.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...