NASA Wants To Make Space Habitats From Orbiting Rocket Fuel Tanks

Illustration for article titled NASA Wants To Make Space Habitats From Orbiting Rocket Fuel Tanks

The idea of re-purposing an (ideally) empty rocket fuel tank and turning it into a space habitat has been around for a long time, because it’s a really appealing idea. America’s first space station, Skylab, was designed from a Saturn V rocket’s upper-stage fuel tank, albeit one that was never filled with fuel. Now NASA has selected a company to develop habitats made from used rocket fuel tanks.

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Illustration for article titled NASA Wants To Make Space Habitats From Orbiting Rocket Fuel Tanks

The company is actually a partnership called Ixion, and they’re formed from NanoRacks (who already develops internal hardware for space stations) and Space Systems Loral. Ixion was chosen to be part of NASA’s NextSTEP partnership that works with private companies to develop new space technologies.

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The exciting thing about what Ixion will attempt to do is that their feasibility study will focus on turning used rocket stages into habitats while in orbit. Right now, with the exception of Elon Musk’s SpaceX automated-landing Falcon 9 rocket stages, all spent rocket stages are just sent to burn up in the atmosphere, or, barring that, just float around aimlessly and uselessly in orbit.

Getting anything into space is a big deal, so the idea of all those huge, well-constructed aluminum cylinders just loafing about or burning into ash is pretty maddening. The ability to take a spent rocket stage and convert it, in situ, into a viable habitat would be a huge deal, and could possibly make space exploration and living a significantly less claustrophobic experience than it’s been since pretty much ever.

Illustration for article titled NASA Wants To Make Space Habitats From Orbiting Rocket Fuel Tanks

After some preliminary ground-based studies, here’s what Ixion’s goals are:

The Ixion Team proposes demonstrating this revolutionary, low-cost concept via the conversion of a Centaur rocket upper stage which will be attached to the International Space Station (“ISS”). After the converted Centaur upper stage is attached to the ISS, the Ixion 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.

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To do this, Ixion would use the launch of one of their Cygnus cargo re-supply modules. These are normally launched on Atlas-Centaur rockets, and the Centaur upper stages are discarded. Ixion would add a little module in between the Cygnus and the Centaur upper stage called a Mission Module, which will add all the stuff NASA wants and they need to make this work: docking module, equipment airlock, grappling points, and maybe some small maneuvering jets.

The good news is that even with this extra little module, everything still fits under the standard Atlas-Centaur launch fairing.

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Illustration for article titled NASA Wants To Make Space Habitats From Orbiting Rocket Fuel Tanks

So, the Cygnus docks like for a normal mission, but has two extra modules hanging on its ass: the mission module and the spent upper stage. The ISS’ robot arm grapples the hangers-on, and moves them to a docking port, where the mission module can dock. At this point, there’s now a nice big module docked, accessible through the mission module. They vent out any excess fuel, and then call Space Ikea to start delivering furniture to outfit it, or whatever they like to do.

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This method gets you two payloads for one launch: a necessary re-supply module and the very much non-trivial bonus of a huge new space habitat to use. There’s some significant cost-savings here, and a lot of potential to grow the ISS (or other future stations) much more quickly and economically.

It’s about time we gave this old idea a real shot; I’m excited to see what comes of it.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

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DISCUSSION

More space on the ISS equals more funding from corporations who need zero-g experimentation time. Which enables more positions available for astronauts from a wider variety of backgrounds which leads to more....

Yes. Hell, yes. I’m too old to ever be selected for the space program but it’s projects like this that give my children a chance, should they so wish. On the surface it just looks like another engineering pitch but the prospects (if they can do it as easily and cheaply as it appears) are potentially astonishing.

If you’re an American citizen with a good scientific education, reasonably young, reasonably fit, it’s projects like this which will give you a chance at getting into space. I did peruse the NASA site and they’re still interested in pilots with 1000+ hours PIC in lieu of some of the academic stuff - all I can think of is they’re looking for people with the ability to make command decisions in difficult circumstances - but I’m not sure why pilots still have any relevance to the space program.

I am a pilot. Ex military too, although British, and even I know I have no relevance to the modern space program. They don’t need me - they need you, the 25 year old who has worked their ass off at school and university in the sciences; you are a rare breed and programs like this could get you into space.

Maybe you don’t care about going into space. When body-swap technology is invented... I’ll swap you. My old, muscle-motor trained piloting body for your scientific knowledge and ticket into orbit...