Private habitats, not just the International Space Station, may be needed to get astronauts to Mars: report

Private space stations may find yourself being a key stepping stone on humanity’s path to Mars.

NASA goals to put astronauts on the moon on this decade and on the Red Planet in the 2030s. To assist make these bold objectives a actuality, the agency is performing a number of analysis aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — monitoring astronaut well being, conduct and efficiency on year-long orbital missions, for instance, to higher perceive the results of long-duration spaceflight on the human physique and thoughts.

But the venerable ISS, which is 23 years previous and has hosted rotating astronaut crews repeatedly since November 2000, may not be round lengthy sufficient to see this work via, in accordance to a new report by the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG).

Related: Building the International Space Station (photos)

“Under the Agency’s [NASA’s] current plans, both health risk mitigation and technology demonstrations will not be complete by 2030 — the expected retirement date of the ISS,” states the 41-page report, which was launched on Tuesday (Nov. 30). (The ISS is formally accredited to function solely via 2024, however “an extension to 2030 is likely,” the report notes.) 

This end result would not take NASA abruptly. The agency is encouraging the growth of personal space stations to fill any orbital analysis gaps that may come up, with the objective of getting a minimum of one such industrial outpost up and working by 2028. And its work towards this finish has been productive, in accordance to the report.

“We found that the Agency’s near-term actions show promise, with NASA’s recent efforts resulting in market interest and growth, especially for private astronaut missions,” the report states.

Private space station missions and modules

For instance, the Houston firm Axiom Space plans to fly four private crewed missions to the ISS aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules in the subsequent two years. The first of these flights is true round the nook, with launch focused for February 2022. The firm has tapped veteran NASA astronauts to command the first two of these flights and may accomplish that for the others as effectively.

Axiom additionally goals to launch a commercial module to the ISS in September 2024, then ship three extra modules up over the subsequent three years.  

“With the delivery of the fourth module, Axiom Station will have the capability to be independent of the ISS and can then separate to become an independent, next-generation space station with upgraded crew quarters, increased payload capacity and a dedicated manufacturing and research lab module,” Axiom Chief Technology Officer Matt Ondler advised by way of electronic mail just lately.

“This timeline supports the current planned end of ISS life, so there should be a seamless transition with no gaps in human continuous presence in LEO [low Earth orbit],” Ondler added.

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A space station exhibits its age

The OIG report is much less sanguine about timelines, stating that NASA “faces significant challenges with executing its commercialization plan by 2028 or even 2030 — meaning that without further extension of the ISS, a gap in availability of a low Earth orbit destination is likely.”

Those challenges “include limited market demand, inadequate funding, unreliable cost estimates and still-evolving requirements,” the report provides. It additionally notes that dangers will rise for crewed missions to deep-space locations resembling the moon and Mars if NASA can not end its prep work in LEO. 

“Furthermore, without a destination, the nascent low Earth orbit commercial space economy would likely collapse, with cascading impacts to commercial space transportation capabilities, in-space manufacturing, and microgravity research,” the report states.

The new report touches on quite a few different points as effectively. For instance, its researchers investigated the space station’s structural integrity, a problem that acquired elevated consideration just lately after the discovery of a number of cracks in Russia’s Zvezda module, which launched to orbit in July 2000.

The report recommends that Kathy Lueders, the head of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, ensure that the dangers related to the Zvezda cracks “are identified and mitigated prior to agreeing to an ISS life extension.” 

In a written response included in the report, Lueders states that NASA “partially concurs” with the advice. The agency agrees that ending risk-assessment work on the cracks is important, as are the Russian federal space agency’s efforts to discover and repair them. But NASA does not agree that such work should be accomplished earlier than an ISS life extension can be granted, Lueders writes.

Research for the new report, which is named “NASA’s Management of the International Space Station and Efforts to Commercialize Low Earth Orbit,” was carried out from November 2020 to October 2021, OIG officers mentioned. You can learn the full report totally free here.

Mike Wall is the creator of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a ebook about the seek for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook

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