Within the next two decades Nasa plans to launch a manned spacecraft destined for Mars, but the lack of congressional financial support has prompted the space agency to look to alternative funding models to realise its mission. A solution was established in 2006 when, for the first time in its history, Nasa challenged the private space industry to submit designs as part of an open competition.
The competition called for the development of a cargo and crew transportation system for the International Space Station (ISS), allowing contributors almost total creative freedom rather than stipulating a regimented list of requirements, as had been the case with previous projects. “We don't want to prescribe how to do it,” says Jason Crusan, director of advanced exploration systems at Nasa. “We've just got to tell them what our end goal is and let industry tell us the kind of approaches that they think are useful.”
The competition model has proved successful, and Nasa is currently accepting proposals for phase two of its NextStep (Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships) initiative. Originally launched in October 2014, NextStep called for submissions from private companies, universities and non-profit organisations to design habitations for the Mars mission. “To and from Mars will take over 1,000 days,” says Crusan. “So you can’t just load people in Orion [the crew transportation vehicle]. We need a specifically designed habitat.”
Nasa believes that developing a prototype in partnership with the private sector will ensure that the US economy remains at the forefront of space expedition while simultaneously decreasing Nasa’s expenditure. “We have this requirement for people-based habitats,” says Crusan. “We know that companies want to build low-Earth orbit commercial space stations. So we said, ‘How about you help us meet our goals of going into deep space and use it to leverage whatever you guys want to do in low-Earth orbit?’”
Phase one of the initiative has seen Nasa successfully partner with four corporations. Influences taken from the space agency are visually apparent in three of the four designs. Those produced by Boeing, Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Orbital ATK all borrow designs from the structure of ISS. Like ISS their habitats rely upon a basic configuration of metal modules transported into space individually and assembled there. In contrast Bigelow’s Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) uses expandable structures that can be compressed, decreasing the amount of transport volume, and then expanded after being deployed into space.
Crusan explains that the competition is an enticing prospect for private corporations, as they will not only gain from Nasa’s space engineering expertise but also from the opportunity to invest in ISS when it no longer serves a purpose for the space agency. “There may be a lot of profit for them,” says Crusan. “ISS is a fully functional space station, and that has commercial prospects: bringing cargo and people, operating habitats and conducting research for the benefit of companies.”
As the crash of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise during a test trial in 2014 demonstrates, the commercial sector’s conquest of the great beyond has not been smooth trip. By imparting its expertise to private companies, Nasa might be able to continue being at the centre of the space industry, both as an advisory body and through influencing the design choices made by others. The aesthetics of the space race look on course to set the agenda for years to come.