Astronauts heading to the Moon in the next five years could very well live in the comfort of a three-story, four-bedroom, inflatable space home designed right here on the Front Range.
Sierra Nevada Corporation's Space Systems division – primarily known for the Dream Chaser space plane – will soon send its inflatable habitat prototype called LIFE, or large inflatable canvas environment, to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. It will be subjected to ground tests, hoping to be part of the NASA modular spacecraft called Gateway, which will orbit the moon of the Earth. It could also potentially 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 a node in orbit or a location from which you can launch exploration missions on the Moon first and then elsewhere," said the former commander of the space shuttle Steve Lindsey, now vice president of space exploration systems of 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 we were to, for example, transport a crew to Mars and return . "
Return to the moon here five years
On March 26, Vice President Mike Pence announced an accelerated schedule to send humans back to the moon in the next five years. Gateway will serve as a space operations center for these missions, orbiting the Moon about 250,000 kilometers from Earth.
LIFE's habitat resembles a giant, lantern-shaped balloon covered with thick woven cloth. It is designed to be launched, deflated, inside the nose cone – or payload fairing – of a rocket, the standard size being an area of 5 meters in diameter.
Once in space, it will be inflated (a process that will take several hours) to reach a height of 27 feet in diameter and 27 feet long.
The Sierra Nevada Corporation's three-story, four-berth habitat prototype, called LIFE or Large Inflatable Fabric Environment, was installed during a demonstration on April 2, 2019 in Louisville. (Marvin Anani, special at Colorado Sun)
From the outside, LIFE seems to be a cramped living space for four people. But as they say, it's bigger inside. The interior houses three levels of living and working space, with a medical bay, science laboratories, robotics stations, a kitchen, two hygiene centers and toilets. There is also training equipment, iPad docks for movies during idle time and a multi-level garden area to provide fresh produce to astronauts.
The outer mesh of the habitat is made from ultra-strong Vectran – a material used in the manufacture of bullet-proof vests – designed for the pressurized interior of the habitat to be comfortable for the crew. There is an internal urethane bladder to keep the air inside, a nylon interlayer, as well as several layers of 4-inch thick foam and six Kevlar sheets.
Like its predecessor, the International Space Station, Gateway will be built from various modules provided by US companies and international partners. Obtaining habitats and other components of large vehicles orbiting in space is no mean feat.
The majority of space modules are rigid structures, which must fit perfectly into a standard 5 meter rocket fairing. However, the use of a compact and inflatable design offers NASA much more flexibility, much more space for science and living space, and rapid deployment, has said Lindsey.
"We wanted to make sure that as soon as the first parts of our bridge were launched and in orbit, they could be used for exploration, without having to wait for many other parts to come up," Lindsey said. "And by swelling, you start to deflate – and it's a much smaller size that you can pack into the fairing of a standard rocket – so you have to mount it up there, then inflate it and build it. We could not have approached this size if we had not done that. "
But why the moon? According to Lindsey, there are many reasons, as deep as the understanding of the origins of life on Earth, as utilitarian as the conversion of the lunar regolith – the loose and dusty material that covers its surface – into fuel components for rockets, allowing to reduce costs and other problems associated with carrying rocket fuel all the way to Earth.
"The moon is only three days away from Earth and we have to learn how to perform ground operations before we leave for Mars," Lindsey said. "If you can use in situ research and get out of gravity on Earth, then produce fuel or an oxidizer on another planet where gravity is nonexistent, it will be more efficient and will facilitate the pursuit of Mars and the Earth." other places. like the moons of Jupiter and so on. "
In late 2014, Space Systems lost to SpaceX and Boeing as a result of the contract between NASA Commercial Crew and the transportation of astronauts to the ISS – a decision that the company protested without success.
What we learned from Dream Chaser
In January 2016, Dream Chaser was one of three winners of NASA's Commercial Resupply Services-2 contract. To win this contract, the space plane was reconfigured with modules and cargo systems.
And, somewhat by chance, this reconfiguration eventually illuminated the design of another NASA-requested gateway prototype: the Power and Propulsion Element, or PPE. SNC's personal protective equipment design uses both Dream Chaser cargo modules and solar powered module hardware, which generates volume for communications, thrusters and other essential functions.
NASA is currently testing various gateway and EPI prototypes presented at this session in various facilities in the United States. Based on the results, the agency must choose from among some or all of the submitted prototypes to define the final requirements of the Gateway module. NASA plans to launch the first segment of the Gateway spacecraft by the end of 2022.
Space Systems' parent company, Sierra Nevada Corporation of Sparks, Nevada, employs approximately 4,000 people, 700 to 800 of whom work for Colorado's only Dream Chaser project. They have several frontline facilities, including three in Louisville – where both the Gateway prototypes and the Dream Chaser vehicle are built – and about 1,500 employees at a facility near Centennial Airport. There are currently about 187 jobs listed with the company in Colorado.
According to the Colorado Space Coalition, Colorado's largest aerospace economic development group, Colorado is the second largest aerospace economy in the United States with approximately 190,880 aerospace jobs.
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