Between finding liquid water on Mars, blue skies on Pluto, and other major discoveries, NASA had a pretty good 2015. Congress noticed and rewarded the agency with a massive budget increase. But, as the old saying goes, there is no such thing a free, freeze-dried lunch. Congress is now instructing NASA to use some of the extra money — roughly $55 million — to construct a prototype model of a deep space habitat. The pols want the thing operational by 2018.
Lest there be confusion, the omnibus bill that stipulates how much NASA gets in the following year actually reads: “NASA shall develop a prototype deep space habitation module within the advanced exploration systems program no later than 2018.” It also says that NASA needs to provide Congress a report within the first 180 days of 2016 detailing how those funds are being used to create the habitation module.
So, to sum up, NASA will have two years to create something that’s never been made before and is distinct from all other NASA projects currently underway. And they’re already on deadline to know how to do this. This project will totally not run into any problems whatsoever!
Of course, NASA has spent much of the last year voicing a desire to get humans to Mars within the next two decades or so, and has been going over several different ideas for how that could be accomplished. A deep space habitat could fall in line with those plans — especially as they might relate to using the moon as a proving grounds for missions to Mars and beyond. A habitation module sitting in cislunar space (between Earth and the moon) could be a useful spot for launching those types of missions.
But so far, instead of tackling the habitation module itself, NASA has elected to fund several other industry studies being run by private companies. Congress’ new directive might force the agency to begin accelerating plans and take control of the wheel.
How likely is it that NASA will meet the 2018 deadline? Pretty unlikely. NASA sets deadlines for itself just like any other major government institution, but it does so with the understanding that a lot can go wrong. Space exploration requires that everything needs to be operating at 100 percent before a launch can be green-lighted — and when that’s not possible, NASA has no problem scrapping the deadline. (Just last week, the agency indefinitely suspended the launch of the InSight Mars Lander due to faulty equipment.)
That’s why NASA goes about developing its projects with methodical detail. It’s not going to rush into something just because Congress wants it now. It couldn’t even if it wanted to — developing and testing spacecraft is an arduous process. Developing a deep space habitat would require several years’ work involving a ton of different personnel. If Congress believes it will get a prototype module before 2018 just because its in writing, it must not really understand how NASA works, let alone space research in general. Perhaps the governing body knows this and is simply trying to jumpstart the process by making it a requirement, with no real plans to hold NASA strictly to it.
Regardless, the request could jumpstart the project and get things moving forward sooner rather than later. We might not get a full on deep space habitation prototype in two years, but we can at least expect some big news to come out before then.