Above: A ground prototype of the LIFE inflatable habitat, fully pressurized.  Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

An inflatable habitat designed for short and long-duration space missions was tested last month by astronauts at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to assess its design and functionality for daily living and work.

Called LIFE (Large Inflatable Fabric Environment), the habitat was built by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) for NASA’s Lunar Gateway Project. It is designed to orbit the moon and support both crewed and robotic missions to the lunar surface, and eventually to deep-space destinations like Mars. Deflated, the habitat can fit inside an 18-foot rocket fairing, making it neatly compact for launch. Fully inflated, it measures 27 feet in diameter and length, providing up to 10,600 cubic feet of volume (about one third of the volume of the International Space Station).

The ‘Astro Garden’ prototype shown inside the LIFE habitat. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The ‘Astro Garden’ prototype shown inside the LIFE habitat. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The interior is partitioned into three decks incorporating a medical research and sick bay, a bathroom, galley, life support systems, crew workstations and sleeping quarters, and plenty of space for payloads and cargo storage. Additionally, the habitat is outfitted with a microgravity garden that offers both a source of fresh food and recreation. According to SNC principal scientist Robert Morrow, the ‘Astro Garden’ can grow leafy greens, tomatoes, radishes, peppers and green onions. Due to space limitations, the garden will only be a supplement for astronauts’ dietary needs. But the garden can also offer a recreational activity and stress reliever for astronauts confined to a small space some 240,000 miles from Earth. It also provides an aesthetic appeal, making the habitat feel more inviting.

According to SNC engineers Mark Roberts and Jeff Valania, NASA’s testing evaluated the daily activities and routines that astronauts will perform in space while living inside LIFE and their ability to accomplish these goals within the space provided. Participating astronauts gave feedback on what worked and what they would want to change for future designs. The results of the tests have not yet been released.

LIFE is among a handful of design concepts being considered by NASA.  The agency has hired private companies to develop lunar gateway designs under its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2) Habitat Systems program. The gateways are a key element in NASA’s new lunar program, Artemis, which intends to return humans to the moon and build a permanent settlement. The scheduled target date to place the first gateway module in lunar orbit is 2024.

Author: Chris Yoakum, PISCES PIO