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Inflatable Habitat
Photo Credit: Jeff Cole
This inflatable building will be erected at McMurdo Station in Antarctica to test its resiliency for a future NASA moon mission.

To the moon

But inflatable habitat will first be tested in the harsh Antarctic environment

Antarctic science normally grabs headlines these days because of how the continent influences climate studies. But the polar landscape is also an important proving ground for those interested in learning more about ecosystems far from Earth — and how equipment and people can operate and survive on alien soil.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is teaming up with NASA and a private company to test an inflatable habitat that the space agency may use for a return expedition to the moon.

“Testing the inflatable habitat in one of the harshest, most remote sites on Earth gives us the opportunity to see what it would be like to use for lunar exploration,” said Paul Lockhart, director of Constellation Systems for NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, in a NASA press release.

NASA’s Constellation Program is shooting for a moon landing by 2020. The idea is to set up a lunar outpost for long-term visits. Without a Motel 6 in that part of the solar system, the astronauts will need a climate-controlled place to stay.

The space agency is developing different concepts for habitation modules that provide protection for the astronauts and are easy to transport to the lunar surface. It requires 125 pounds of fuel and hardware to move one pound of supplies through outer space, according to NASA.

Jeff Cole, a project manager with Raytheon Polar Services Co., the contractor that manages logistics for NSF’s U.S. Antarctic Program, said the structure will be located at McMurdo Station, set up on an empty building pad from January 2008 to February 2009. While there, the air-filled building must winter temperatures that average minus 30 degrees Celsius and sustain winds that can clock in at more than 100 kilometers per hour.

In addition to providing a temporary home for the inflatable habitat, the USAP will transport the materials to and from the continent along with NASA personnel, according to Cole. Part of his job is to ensure the habitat has electricity and data connections for the NASA team that will install the test model.

“[The connections] have to be designed by our engineering department,” said Cole, who attended a demonstration of the equipment on Nov. 14 at ILC Dover’s facility in Frederica, Del. ILC Dover is the private company partnering with the two federal agencies in developing the inflatable building.

NSF Officials
Photo Credit: Peter West/NSF
NSF officials Erick Chiang, center, and Patrick Haggerty, right, receive a tour of the inflatable habitat.

The NSF is interested in the technology because it is light and easy to assemble. Cole said such a structure might be used for short-term deployments at temporary, deep field camps.

“This would be something where they could get in, rapidly deploy, and then move out. That would be the best application of this structure because it’s relatively light-weight, it deploys pretty quickly, and it can fit in small aircraft,” he said.

During the test of the new inflatable habitat, NSF will study improvements in packing, transportation and set up, as well as power consumption and damage tolerance, according to a foundation press release.

Cole said the structure comes in three parts — two halves and a vestibule — that can be zipped together and fully inflated in less than 10 minutes. It comes with an insulated cover.

“It’s kind of like a tent that you put a coat on,” Cole said.

There is also an interior heating system, and motion sensors that can detect whether someone is inside the 384-square-foot module. And, Cole noted, “There’s an actual Web camera that’s going to be suspended from the ceiling that will be remote controllable from Johnson Space Center by the NASA engineers who will monitor the habitat.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs