According to Aviation Week, NASA engineers at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are building a mockup of what appears to be a deep space habitat, though it could also be part of an interplanetary spacecraft.
Mockup made from leftover parts
The Aviation Week article notes that the mockup was made from engineering modules left over from the International Space Station project, some museum pieces, and even a 5-foot aluminum-lithium cylinder left over from Marshall's shell-buckling knockdown factor recalculations. The whole thing, which can be rearranged with walls moved about, has been put together in the same building where the Apollo moon buggy was developed and tested.
Human factors studies conducted using the mockup
Aviation Week goes on to state that the mockup has been created to gain a further understanding of what it will take to sustain a crew of four on deep space missions. The crew volume, for example, is twice as large as that on the International Space Station. There are waste disposal facilities, an outer shell filled with water that would protect the crew against cosmic rays, a greenhouse, and even a 3-D printer to custom make spare parts and tools out of recycled materials. NASA suggests that researching the science of human factors, how to make space travel as comfortable as possible for human beings, is important to assure the safety and productivity of astronauts on deep space missions.
Where people will go in deep space
The question arises, where will people actually go when they venture beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the mission of Apollo 17 in December 1972? According to the Orlando Sentinel, NASA officials made a presentation to the White House to create a deep space station at L2, the Lagrange point where the gravity of the Earth and moon cancel one another out 38,000 miles beyond the far side of the moon and 277,000 away from Earth. Such a space station would constitute a practice run for actual deep space missions to Earth approaching asteroids and, ultimately, Mars. Gizmodo suggests that the mockup could also be the basis of future interplanetary craft.
Return to the moon
The L2 deep space station could also serve as a jumping off point for a return to the moon, either by teleoperated robots controlled from the deep space station or by human beings. If humans return to the moon and start to use lunar ice to create rocket fuel, the deep space station could be used as a refueling depot, using fuel shipped from the moon, to allow interplanetary ships to top off before proceeding deeper into the Solar System. Paul Spudis, a planetary geologist who writes frequently on space policy, suggests that an L2 station should serve this purpose.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.