NASA Signs First NextSTEP Contract For Commercial Habitat Concept Study

Image Credit: NanoRacks

June 13, 2017 – NanoRacks has become the first of six partners to sign a contract with NASA to develop deep space habitat concepts that were announced last summer. NanoRacks and NASA have signed the contract for Ixion, a concept that will focus on repurposing spent launch vehicle upper stages provided by United Launch Alliance (ULA). Space Systems Loral will provide robotic outfitting capabilities.

Funded by NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2) program, the Ixion concept is the only one of the NASA-funded programs that focuses on repurposing spent launch vehicle upper stages into commercial space stations. The Ixion Initiative Team will begin by conducting a comprehensive feasibility study to evaluate the conversion process.

The Ixion team then hopes to demonstrate the concept by converting a Centaur rocket upper stage and attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS). The team will leverage the habitat as a proving ground for a variety of private sector activities leading to a new era in commercial low-Earth orbit (LEO) utilization.

After being proven in LEO, the Ixion approach could be used to create deep space habitats from any future rocket upper stages, including the Space Launch System’s upper stage, which would provide a substantial amount of volume and capability for human exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

No company has done more commercial work on the ISS than NanoRacks. As of June 2017, over 550 payloads have been launched to the ISS via NanoRacks services and the company has also been responsible for deploying satellites from the ISS and from commercial space vehicles. NanoRacks has worked with Orbital ATK and NASA to grow the External Cygnus Deployment program, which is focused on extending the mission of cargo vehicles after their primary stay at the ISS.

In a recent press release, NanoRacks Mission Manager Henry Martin said, “Not only are we deploying exciting commercial satellites, but we’re also at the tipping point for showing the limitless possibilities of repurposing in-space vehicles. Our customer base is growing for future missions, and we have plans to expand our opportunities within the next year.

Re-use of upper stages for habitats is a proven concept, first implemented by NASA’s Wernher von Braun for Skylab, America’s first space station.

NextSTEP is managed by the Advanced Exploration Systems Division (AES) in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. AES is pioneering innovative approaches and public-private partnerships to rapidly develop prototype systems, advance key capabilities, and validate operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit. 

Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada Corporation are also developing space habitat concepts under the NextSTEP-2 program.