eXploration Habitat Academic Innovation Challenge in Context

Doug Comstock of NASA's Innovative Partnerships Program recently tweeted:

IPP/OCT/ESMD partner on new student competition: an inflatable loft for space exploration habitats. More at: http://tinyurl.com/xhab-comp

The eXploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge is a graduate and upper level undergraduate student competition involving a senior level design class to build an inflatable space habitat. The eXploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge Solicitation (PDF) has details on the competition. From the solicitation:

The challenge is for a senior and/or graduate level design course in which students will design, manufacture, assemble, and test an inflatable loft that will be integrated onto an existing NASA built operational hard shell prototype ... In June of 2011 the NASA-Habitat Demonstration Unit (HDU) Project will conduct a head-to-head competition for successfully designing and demonstrating an attachable inflatable habitat “Loft” ... The head-to-head competition will determine the winner that will be awarded additional funds to integrate their design with the HDU-Lab during the August-September 2011 HDU-Hab/Lab integrated field testing.

Funding can come from NASA and team sponsors:

The Foundation anticipates that up to three awards will be made under this solicitation for $48,000 each. Up to an additional $10,000 will be awarded to the team that wins the head-to head competition to offset their costs of participating in the HDU-Hab/Lab integrated field testing. ... As part of this solicitation the universities are encouraged to innovatively seek additional sponsorship and collaborations (Project Teaming) with other universities and organizations to meet the design requirements and test objectives.

It is interesting to see how some of NASA's exploration efforts are concentrating on certain new technologies. NASA is considering four initial Flagship Technology Demonstration Missions (PDF):

Solar Electric Propulsion Stage
CRYOGENIC Propellant STorage And Transfer (CRYOSTAT) Mission
Inflatable Module Mission
Aerocapture, Entry, Descent & Landing (all PDF)

In addition to the main technologies associated with each mission, these space missions would involve demonstration of automated rendezvous and docking technology using a new tug vehicle that would also deliver 3 of the demonstrations to their test start locations (e.g.: ISS or GEO). The inflatable module mission could also be the home for Environment Control and Life Support (ECLS) technology demonstrations at the ISS. You can find much more information about these tentative flagship technology demonstration plans at the Flagship Technology Demonstration Request for Information (RFI) site.

However, NASA is not leaving these key exploration technologies to just these flagship technology demonstration missions. NASA is approaching these challenges at multiple scales, levels of ambition, and application areas. The X-Hab competition is an example of this, where the flagship inflatable module mission tackles the problem at one scale, and the student competition does the same in a way that develops new ideas related to the concept of inflatable habitats and a new workforce to make the most of the technology.

Here are some other examples where the 4 flagship technology demonstration missions have counterparts:

Announcement of Opportunity - DISCOVERY 2010 (PDF) - The next opportunity for missions in NASA's Discovery program that brought us the Mars Pathfinder and many other planetary science missions includes an incentive to encourage Discovery mission proposals to include certain new technologies:

SMD’s In–Space Propulsion Technology (ISPT) program has developed several technologies that are nearing TRL 6 and that are, therefore, potentially applicable to Discovery missions. Three of these technologies are: 1) the NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) ion propulsion system, 2) the Advanced Material Bi-propellant Rocket (AMBR), and 3 aerocapture. ...

For missions that utilize NEXT, the cap on the PI-Managed Mission Cost will be raised by $19M (FY 2010);
• For missions that utilize AMBR, the cap on the PI-Managed Mission Cost will be raised by $5M (FY 2010);
• For lander missions that propose to use aerocapture, the cap on the PI-Managed Mission Cost will be raised by $10M (FY 2010).
• For orbiter missions that propose to use aerocapture, the cap will be raised by $20M (FY 2010).

The tentative robotic precursor plans also include the potential for a Mars mission involving aerocapture:

Explorations Precursor Robotic Missions (xPRM) (PDF) - The third large robotic precursor mission described here is a potential 2016 Mars Orbiter mission:

Favored Option: Mars Resource Explorer with Operational Aerocapture
– Aerocapture critical to mission success, but much more valuable than a smaller fly-along demo.
• Could perhaps restructure as separate aerocapture demo ...

In addition, NASA plans a number of exploration technology demonstrations that are smaller than the flagship missions:

Exploration Technology Development & Demonstration (ETDD) (PDF) - One of the technologies described here is High Power Electric Propulsion. This would involve greater power than the SEP from the initial flagship missions, but it would be demonstrated on the ground at the subsystem level. If successful, it could be included in a later flagship technology demonstration mission.

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