Nestled in this year’s omnibus spending bill are tens of millions of dollars earmarked for a key step to getting us to Mars.
Image via NASA
By now, the fact that NASA is slowly ramping up efforts to someday put a person on the surface of Mars is a fairly incontrovertible fact. What is still up for debate, however, is exactly how the space agency plans to accomplish that interplanetary feat. Now Congress has put a price tag—and a time limit—on one of the key components of a trip to the red planet, ordering NASA to set aside at least $55 million for the development of a prototype “habitation augmentation module” by 2018.
In other words, Congress wants NASA to start coming up with designs for a deep-space home away from home to be used by future astronauts during their months—even years—off planet.
According to SpaceNews, the “habitation augmentation module” mandate comes as part of a report attached to the massive 2016 omnibus spending bill enacted into law on December 18. That report also instructs NASA to update Congress on its progress within 180 days of the bill’s activation. The funds come out of a $350 million “Exploration Research and Development” budget line item.
Image via NASA
While NASA has long been exploring different deep-space habitation module options, SpaceNews reports that International Space Station director Sam Scimemi told guests at a December 16 Space Transportation Association luncheon that he did not know of any specific plans for the funds, although he envisions active testing of a deep-space habitation module sometime in the mid-2020s, to demonstrate viability ahead of a projected Mars mission to take place sometime in the 2030s.
Earlier this year, NASA contracted with a number of aerospace firms, including Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, to explore designs for potential space habitats as part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships program. According to SpaceNews, those contractual partnerships will likely inform the agency’s (now on the clock) plans for a prototype, although Scimemi reportedly indicated at the STA luncheon that NASA might build the actual habitat itself.