Orbital ATK Wants to Help NASA Put Astronauts Near the Moon Again and, Eventually, Mars

Orbital ATK just proposed a near lunar habitat that could be ready by 2020.

by Kastalia Medrano

Orbital ATK, an aerospace manufacturer and contractor, wants to build a manned lunar orbit outpost that could link up with NASA’s Orion crew module — and it wants to do it by 2020.

The Orion crew’s maiden mission should take place in 2021, and Orbital ATK declared in a testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space on Wednesday that it would be ready before then. The proposed habitat would have room to house four astronauts. The upcoming NASA Orion missions in near lunar (or cislunar) space will be crucial test runs for the ambitious “Journey to Mars” missions slated to begin in the 2030s.

Orbital ATK has already designed a spacecraft called Cygnus, which will be a “building-block candidate” for the cislunar outpost, according to Orbital ATK President of the Space Systems Group (and former NASA astronaut) Frank Culbertson. If all goes according to plan, a commercial launch vehicle will deliver a Cygnus-derived module into lunar orbit in 2020. It should be noted that NASA is still keeping its options open, and there’s no guarantee as yet that the organization will agree to use the Orbital ATK habitat.

However, it does give NASA the intriguing possibility, should the habitat launch ultimately prove successful. Culbertson stressed that the goals of NASA and Orbital ATK are aligned, and that the practical knowledge gained from such a venture could lead directly to putting the first humans on Mars.

“A lunar-orbit habitat will extend America’s leadership in space to the cislunar domain,” Culbertson said at the hearing. “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.”