Sierra Nevada unveils full scale Gateway habitat module prototype


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Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada yesterday unveiled a full scale prototype of a habitable module that it developed under a NASA contract for the agency’s proposed Lunar Gateway space station.

[The module] measures more than 8 meters long, and with a diameter of 8 meters has an internal volume of 300 cubic meters, which is about one-third the size of the International Space Station.

Sierra Nevada developed this full-scale prototype under a NASA program that funded several companies to develop habitats that could be used for a space station in orbit around the Moon, as well as potentially serving as living quarters for a long-duration transit to and from Mars. As part of the program, NASA astronauts have, or will, spend three days living in and evaluating the prototypes built by Sierra Nevada, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Bigelow Aerospace.

The selling point for Sierra Nevada’s habitat is its size, which is possible because the multi-layered fabric material can be compressed for launch, then expanded and outfitted as a habitat once in space. It can fit within a standard payload fairing used for launch vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan booster, or NASA’s Space Launch System. It is light enough for any of those rockets to launch to the Moon.

What we are seeing here is the unfolding of the Washington lobbying game to guarantee Gateway gets funded and built. NASA is spreading its available Gateway cash around to multiple companies, who will now have a vested interest in lobbying Congress to get this lunar space station funded and built.

The one very good component of this lobbying process is that NASA is not doing the building or the designing. It is hiring private companies, which means the project will act to stimulate the American aerospace industry. Moreover, it is leaving the ownership of the spacecraft and the decision on what launch vehicle to use to the companies, which means this cannot be used as a lever to fund the SLS boondoggle. Under this arrangement more will get done faster for less.

Even so, Lunar Gateway will mostly act to slow the United States’ effort to colonize the solar system. We will be spending our government space dollars on an orbiting lunar space station, thus generally trapping us in orbit, as we watch China, India, Russia and others land and explore the surface.

There is only one way Gateway could possibly be beneficial to the United States. NASA gets it built fast and cheaply, so that it then can be used as a jumping off point for further exploration. This would give the U.S. capabilities in space that far exceed other countries.

My fear is that NASA has a terrible track record in the past half century of doing anything fast or cheaply. Instead, NASA projects like Gateway end up taking forever and costing many times their initial proposed budget. SLS is a perfect poster child for this. Its goal is not so much to launch as to provide Congress endless pork.

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5 comments

  • mike shupp

    Lunar Gateway will mostly act to slow the United States’ effort to colonize the solar system

    You seem to think this is a problem; I think it’s the feature. Our politicians are scared to death of what it might cost to colonize the solar system and what the short and long term political implications might be. You and I might read Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and conclude “A happy ending, The good guys won!” Try reading it from a Congressman’s perspective, and it looks like Dante’s description of something more horrible than the 9th circle of Hell.

  • Terry Pickett

    NASA is broken. No funding for Moon 2024 or Mars. Will be impossible to get Congressional funding even for the Moon. Probably see a move to de-orbit ISS to free up money.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “My fear is that NASA has a terrible track record in the past half century of doing anything fast or cheaply. Instead, NASA projects like Gateway end up taking forever and costing many times their initial proposed budget. SLS is a perfect poster child for this. Its goal is not so much to launch as to provide Congress endless pork.

    I think that what happened to NASA is that it became Congress’s toy for high-visibility pork distribution. Results and timeliness no longer mattered to Congress.

    This is why entrepreneurs took the reins in the 1990s to start doing things in space independent of NASA. Unfortunately, independent funding was difficult to come by, as Dr. Binder discovered with his Lunar Prospector lunar exploration satellite. It wasn’t until the COTS ISS resupply program that started to convince investors that space could be done successfully by commercial companies. The exceptions were the well-established commercial communication satellite business and the newly formed commercial Earth observation satellite business.

    The problem that today’s entrepreneurs have is that NASA and government is still the major customer. This is the problem that must be solved in order for commercial space to really take off and be independent. Once this happens, Congress and NASA will no longer determine future of manned space exploration, but these commercial space companies will have a heavy influence. I believe that this turnover will be the moment that commercial space will be the competition in the race to Mars, and if it happens soon enough then commercial space will also be in the race back to the Moon.

    As other countries bring their own space programs online, they will also influence the future of space exploration.

    This dual hand-off of influence is one of the reasons that I expect the decade of the 2020s to be so exciting. Rather than Gateway slowing our effort to colonize the solar system, it will make NASA obsolete in this effort.

    Do we want government to tell us how to explore, colonize, and expand, or do we want to be the ones who determine our own future in space? Many people still think that it should or will be up to NASA to guide us into the solar system, but I think that it should and will be commercial companies that do so. This is what capitalism in space will look like.

    These space habitats by Sierra Nevada, Bigelow, and other companies are just part of that capitalism and self determination that will happen soon. ULA predicted this type of activity a few years back when they talked of Cislunar 1000:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxftPmpt7aA (7 minutes)

  • mike shupp

    I always get an “uhhh….” feeling when people start griping about NASA as a source for pork barrel spending and employment. Thing is, back in the 1960’s, when US population was under 200 million people, NASA and its contractors employed 400,000 people — 2 out of every thousand — on Apollo. Today, with about 330 million Americans, NASA and its contractors employ about 60,000 people — about 2 out of ten thousand Americans on federal space projects.

    Using another perspective, 60,000 people is about half the number who find jobs ON A BAD WEEK in the American economy. This just isn’t a significant figure, and very few politicians pretend it is. I lived six years in Downey California back in shuttle R&D days and never heard our Congressman mention that any aerospace work was performed in the district. Later on, I was five years just south of Pasadena and working at JPL, and never heard the Congressman for that district refer to aerospace programs. Voters had other interests which struck them as more important and I suspect that’s still the case.

    Maybe maybe maybe it’s different for people down in Alabama and Mississippi and a senator making a big deal about bringing a couple hundred additional workers to Huntsville or Stennis or Cape Kennedy can gain a couple hundred thousand votes. But I doubt it.

  • Edward

    mike shupp wrote: “I always get an “uhhh….” feeling when people start griping about NASA as a source for pork barrel spending and employment.

    I don’t know about the employment factor, but Congress spends a lot of money on manned space yet does not get much for it.

    In the Apollo days, we had two goals and met both.

    When the Space Shuttle was being proposed, it was sold by saying that it would fly about 64 times annually for the price that we paid for it. By the time it first flew, it was going to fly only about 40% that many times annually for the same annual price, and by the time it was operational, we know that it would fly only about 10% as much as the agreed-to rate. Overall, the Space Shuttle cost more than twice as much as Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury in real dollars and never reached its goals.

    Congress did not mind. They didn’t complain, and they didn’t fund a less expensive yet more productive replacement. They were happy to keep the funding going despite the disappointing results.

    The space station had a similar track record. When it was revealed that space station Freedom would cost $32 billion, including shuttle launches, Congress demanded a redesign. This seemed like they were concerned with costs, but what we ended up with cost three times as much to build and is only half as productive, or less, as originally promised.

    Again, Congress did not mind. They were happy to keep the funding going.

    The shuttle replacement was to be the Constellation program to return to the Moon. When Obama cancelled that program, Congress insisted upon a rocket of their own design. They had nothing that they were going to use it for, but they wanted the money spent and do not seem to mind that it is taking much longer than promised to get this rocket. Congress does not mind that it costs too much, launches too little, and will likely be obsolete about the time it is scheduled to become operational. They are happy to keep the funding going.

    A lot of money has been and is being spent, but we do not get the promised benefits.

    So, what is the definition of pork?
    https://www.dictionary.com/browse/pork
    2. Informal. appropriations, appointments, etc., made by the government for political reasons rather than for public benefit, as for public buildings or river improvements.

    In order for the commercial companies to stay in business, their productivity will have to be greater than their costs, and they have to sell their products (goods or services) for a price low enough that others are willing to pay. Government need not do this, as we have seen with the past three manned programs.

    mike shupp,
    You may not have heard your congressman mention it, but somehow you seem to know that aerospace is a major industry in the Los Angeles area. Maybe your congressional representatives knew that their constituents already understood what they were doing, or maybe there is some other political reason for funding these disappointing programs.

    Either way, I expect that commercial space will soon increase the productivity that comes from space related activities. Costs are already beginning to come down, and inexpensive CubeSats are showing that they are more valuable and productive than we had expected when they were invented, twenty years ago.

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