Here’s a bit of news that came out late last year and didn’t get enough attention: as part of a spending bill passed by Congress, NASA got a nice bump in funding. But it also came with a catch: $55 million has to be spent on a “habitat augmentation module,” and that has to be ready by 2018.
So, what exactly is a Habitat Augmentation Module? Well, you can sort of think of it like a space station, but not one designed to just stay in low-earth orbit, like the ISS. It’s a living/working module designed for use in deep space. In this case, that can be cislunar space (that is, the space within the orbit of the moon), it could be the L2 Lagrange point, or it could be en route to or in the orbit of Mars.
Essentially, it’s a re-usable crew module of humanity’s first interplanetary spaceship. And NASA is supposed to build it in two years.
The basic idea isn’t new, of course. The project was first referred to as the Deep Space Habitat back in 2012, and had been planning to have it ready for a shakedown cruise in cislunar space by the 2020s.
NASA is well into development of America’s next crewed spacecraft, the Orion. The Orion would be used to get to the Habitation Augmentation Module (let’s just call it HAM, already, which was also the name of America’s first space chimp, in a happy coincidence), and, once docked with the module and a larger engine/fuel module, that whole assembly would become the first crewed interplanetary spaceship, ready to head off to Mars or some asteroid or that weird big black monolith floating out there that we really should get a better look at.
The good news about all of this is that the HAM really isn’t using anything new. It’s made from modules that are directly derived from modules currently used on the ISS, with the only totally new module being the Cryogenic Propulsion Module, and even that uses existing components.
Looking at the diagram, you can see what is essentially a three-module space station, all connected on one axis, like the old Salyut 7/Cosmos module setup the Soviets used prior to Mir. The main lab/living module would be directly derived from the ISS Lab module Destiny, and to that there’s a little utility tunnel leading to an Multi Purpose Logistics Module (MLPM). The MLPM is already in common use and has been for years. It’s essentially a cargo module, which is essentially a big can designed to be habitable in space.
The utility tunnel also appears to house a pair of heat-radiating panels, and the propulsion module seems to sport a pair of solar panels as well. That propulsion module is usually shown as a conventional chemical rocket system, but there’s no reason why one with an electric-ion propulsion system (perhaps augmented with chemical rockets) couldn’t be used.
Some alternate variations propose the use of an ISS node-type module that would have docking ports that could allow for smaller craft to dock with the module. Those smaller craft are fascinating in themselves, and I’ll be doing an article about those soon.
There’s at least one other concept that uses a single cylindrical module with multiple interior decks, like Skylab. This NASA PDF has a good rundown of the HAM candidates.
The HAM is a good, simple idea. Why build all-new spaceships for these various deep-space missions when you can keep the crew module around in space for when you need it, and just resupply/refuel it for each new mission? It makes good sense, and the technology is already so well known that I think pushing it ahead a few years is a great move.
If the HAM is ready in 2018, then the Orion really should be ready by then as well, and once it is ready, there will be a destination to send the Orion. Once docked at the HAM, crews could test and shakedown the system in cislunar orbit for a mission, and then resupply/change crews to go on to more exciting missions to the asteroids or Mars.
The more I think about this, the more excited I get. Essentially, Congress is telling NASA to get going, already, on building an interplanetary spaceship to explore the solar system. That’s big news.
Also, I can’t help but mention this fundamental concept—keeping a habitation module in space to be used and re-used by Orion crews—is a lot like the idea I had a couple years back, for a reusable mission module for the Orion. NASA later decided to go with an idea very close to what I had, minus the ‘keep in space’ part, but now the HAM appears to be doing just that.
I can’t wait for 2018.