Astronauts heading to the Moon within the next five years could live in the comfort of a three-story inflatable house with four "rooms", designed right here in Front Range.
The Space Systems division of the Sierra Nevada Corporation, best known for the Dream Chaser spacecraft, will soon ship its prototype inflatable habitat called LIFE, or large inflatable tissue environment, to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. There, it will undergo ground tests, hoping to become part of NASA's modular spacecraft called Gateway that will orbit the Earth's moon. It could also serve as a crew habitat for a trip to Mars, for which the typical duration required by NASA is approximately 1,000 days.
"(Gateway) is an orbital node or a location from which you can start exploration missions to the Moon first, and then to other places," said former Space Shuttle Commander Steve Lindsey, now vice president of space exploration systems at Sierra. Nevada in Louisville. . "It is designed to support human missions in orbit around the moon, but we also had to design (LIFE) to support a 1,100-day mission if, for example, we were to transport a crew to Mars and return."
Return to the moon in five years.
Vice President Mike Pence announced on March 26 an accelerated calendar to return humans to the Moon in the next five years. Gateway will serve as a space operations center for those missions, orbiting the moon some 250,000 miles away from Earth.
The LIFE habitat resembles a giant balloon shaped like a paper lantern, covered by a thick woven canvas. It is designed to be launched, deflated, inside the nose cone, or payload fairing, of a rocket, the standard size is an area of 5 meters in diameter.
Once in space, it will inflate, a process that will last several hours, until it reaches a size of 27 feet in diameter and 27 feet in length.
The habitat prototype of the four-story Sierra Nevada Corporation Space Systems division, called LIFE, is inflated during a demonstration on April 2, 2019 in Louisville. (Marvin Anani, special for the Colorado Sun)
From the outside, LIFE seems to be a living space for four people. But, as they say, it's bigger inside. The interior houses three floors of living and working space, complete with a medical bay, science labs, robotics stations, a kitchen, two hygiene centers and a toilet. There is also equipment for exercises, bases for iPads for films during the time of inactivity and a multi-level space garden to provide fresh products to astronauts.
The outer mesh of the habitat is made of super strong Vectran, a material that is used to make bulletproof vests, designed to keep the pressurized interior of comfortable habitat for the crew. There is an internal urethane bladder to keep the air inside, a medium layer of nylon, along with several layers of foam 4 inches thick and six sheets of Kevlar.
Like its predecessor, the International Space Station, Gateway will be built from several modules supplied by US companies and international partners. Getting habitats and other components of large orbiting vehicles in space is not an easy task.
Most of the space modules are rigid structures, which must fit completely inside a standard 5 meter rocketry fairing. However, the use of an inflatable and compact design offers NASA much more flexibility, much more space for science and living space and rapid deployment, Lindsey said.
"We wanted to make sure that as soon as we launched the first pieces of our Gateway and into orbit they could be used for exploration, without having to wait for a bunch of other pieces to come up," Lindsey said. "And when you inflate, you start to deflate, and it's a much smaller size that you can pack inside the fairing of a standard rocket, so you put it up there, then you inflate it and build it, we could not get anywhere in this size if we would not have done it. "
But why the moon? Lindsey said there are many reasons, from as high an understanding as the origins of life on Earth to as utilitarian as the conversion of the moon's regolith, the loose, dusty material that covers its surface, into components of rocket fuel, saving costs and other problems badociated with transporting rocket fuel from Earth.
"The moon is only three days away from Earth, and we need to learn how to do surface operations before going to Mars," Lindsey said. "If you can do on-site research and get out of Earth's gravity well, and then you can produce fuel or oxidant on another planet where there is no gravity well, then it's more efficient and makes it easier to continue to Mars and other places. " like the moons of Jupiter and others.
At the end of 2014, Space Systems lost to SpaceX and Boeing on the contract of the commercial crew of NASA to transport astronauts back and forth to the ISS, a decision that the company protested without success.
What we learned from the Dream Chaser
In January 2016, Dream Chaser was one of the three winners of NASA's Commercial Replenishment Services-2 contract. To win that contract, the space plane was reconfigured with modules and charging systems.
And, in a somewhat casual way, that reconfiguration ended up informing the design of another Gateway prototype requested by NASA: the Element of Power and Propulsion, or PPE. The SNC PPE design uses the charging modules and the Dream Chaser hardware for its solar energy module that generates power for communications, propellers and other critical functions.
NASA is currently testing, in various facilities around the US UU., The various prototypes of PPE and Gateway habitat presented during this round. Based on the results, it is expected that the agency will choose elements of some or all of the prototypes sent to develop the final requirements of the Gateway module. NASA hopes to launch the first segment of the Gateway spacecraft by the end of 2022.
The parent company of Space Systems, Sierra Nevada Corporation of Sparks, Nevada, has approximately 4,000 employees in total, with 700-800 working on the Dream Chaser project in Colorado alone. They have several facilities in the Front Range, including three in Louisville, where both the Gateway prototypes and the Dream Chaser vehicle are built, and approximately 1,500 employees in a facility near Centennial Airport. There are currently around 187 open jobs with the company in Colorado.
Colorado has the second largest aerospace economy in the United States, with an estimated 190,880 jobs related to the aerospace industry in the state, according to the Colorado Space Coalition, the leading group in the state's aerospace economic development industry.
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