Orbital ATK unveils cislunar habitat plan, potential missions for SLS and Orion

by Chris Gebhardt

Orbital ATK has unveiled preliminary plans to place a four-person habitat in cislunar space by 2020. The announcement during testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space would not only see the creation of a permanent human presence in lunar orbit by the start of the next decade, but would potentially provide a wealth of regularly-scheduled missions for SLS and Orion.

Orbital ATK cislunar habitat by 2020 – missions for SLS and Orion:

Speaking before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space, Frank Culbertson, former NASA astronaut and current President of the Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group, advocated for the placement of a permanently crewed four-person cislunar habitat (in lunar orbit) by no later than 2020.

2016-05-19-185548During his testimony, Mr. Culbertson said, “A lunar-orbit habitat will extend America’s leadership in space to the cislunar domain.

“A robust program to build, launch and operate this initial outpost would be built on NASA’s and our international partners’ experience gained in long-duration human space flight on the International Space Station and would make use of the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion deep-space transportation system.”

The direct mention of SLS forthcoming SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft were of particular note from the announcement that took many by pleasant surprise.

2016-05-19-184045Since its inception, critics of SLS have routinely repeated the mantra of “no missions” for the largest Heavy Lift Vehicle thus-far built.

While it is true that SLS has struggled to gain concrete missions beyond the opening two test flights (currently targeted for 2018 [EM-1] and “not later than” 2023 [EM-2]), that has not stopped NASA from planning a robust series of flights for SLS to bring humans to red planet by the 2030s/2040s and to provide support for the well-branded-but-confusingly-named Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) in the 2020s.

Now, the Orbital ATK’s latest proposal on the table, SLS could play a prominent role in the crew transportation realm of this cislunar outpost.

Moreover, the announcement seemingly underscores Orbital ATK’s drive to continue their excellent and evolving partnership with NASA in all things space.

Orbital ATK was recently selected by NASA to study an initial version of a cislunar habitat that could evolve over time to a much larger research platform with many of the capabilities required for a human mission to Mars.

2015-11-13-192924These pathfinder studies are part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, a public-private partnership model that seeks commercial development of deep-space exploration capabilities to support more extensive human space flight missions in the “proving ground” of cislunar space.

For this newly proposed cislunar habitat, Orbital ATK is hoping to capitalize on the success of their Cygnus spacecraft design.

During his testimony, Mr. Culbertson emphasized that Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft is a strong building block candidate for the cislunar outpost.

2015-08-07-122716According to Orbital ATK, the habitat concept involves pre-positioning a Cygnus-derived module in lunar orbit using a commercial launch vehicle in 2020.

This initial module would be in place ahead of the debut crewed flight of the SLS and Orion on EM-2, though whether NASA would alter its current targeted plans for EM-2 remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, the fact that this new Orbital ATK habitat would be available for EM-2 present NASA will some interested options for EM-2 and beyond – as the stated goals of the first several crewed EM flights of Orion are to gain experience in cislunar space before pushing on to Mars and other deep-space locations.

2016-05-19-183452These paths from NASA and Orbital ATK appear to be strikingly complementary, as Orbital ATK notes that their cislunar habitat would establish the first elements of cislunar infrastructure to enable expanded exploration of the moon in the 2020s and also provide a platform for technology research and demonstration needed to enable human flights to Mars in the 2030s.

“The experience gained in the cislunar proving ground will lead directly to longer mission durations in deep space and eventually enable a manned mission to Mars,” Culbertson said.

“But, in order to increase stay times in cislunar space and accommodate a range of technology demonstrations and scientific experiments, additional habitation space and consumables are necessary.”

2015-12-03-154838To this end, Orbital ATK plans to expand from the initial Cygnus-derived module with additional habitat and research modules to expand the outpost following delivery by Orion/SLS and other launch systems in the 2022-2025 period.

“A very good starting point for the design of a cislunar habitat is our flexible, human-rated Cygnus spacecraft which incorporates the knowledge gained from delivering cargo to the ISS.”

In this manner, the Orbital ATK’s cislunar habitat could provide NASA, the European Space Agency, and commercial companies an evolving outpost that could serve as a scientific research platform as well as a staging base and safe haven for lunar landing expeditions and robotic surface operations.

“Since many aspects of operations in deep space are as yet untested, confidence must be developed through repeated flights to, and relatively long-duration missions in, cislunar space,” Culbertson said.

2016-05-19-183746“Orbital ATK continues to operate our Cygnus cargo logistics vehicle as a flagship product, so we are ready to quickly and affordably implement an initial Cygnus-derived habitat in cislunar space within three years of a go-ahead.”

Expanding Cygnus beyond its current capabilities should not pose too many technical hurdle for the aerospace and defense company.  

Orbital ATK has already expanded the capabilities of Cygnus beyond its core cargo delivery function, as the current OA-6 Cygnus serves as a research platform for technology risk-reduction demonstrations to enable deep-space exploration as part of existing cargo delivery missions to the ISS.

The first technology demonstration, Spacecraft Fire Experiment-1 (SAFFIRE-1) designed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center, will be demonstrated following the OA-6 Cygnus’ unberthing and release from the ISS in June.

(Images: Orbital ATK, NASA and L2 – including renders from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

(To join L2, click here: //www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)

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