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Lunar habitat at McMurdo Station.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
The NASA inflatable lunar habitat took less than an hour to erect. It will remain at McMurdo Station for one year to test how well it does in the elements. NASA engineers in the United States will monitor the building with sensors and cameras.

Taking shelter

NASA erects lunar habitat at McMurdo Station to test structure's hardiness in polar climate

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A new building joined the McMurdo Station cityscape this past austral summer. It took less than an hour to erect.

Quick deployment is one of the key components that NASA is after for a space habitat that will shelter astronauts on long-term missions to the moon and beyond to Mars. One leading concept is an inflatable building.

A team from NASA brought a terrestrial version of the structure to McMurdo in January to test a number of variables, including its resiliency in the tough Antarctic environment. NASA scientists and engineers often use Antarctica as a testing ground for such projects, as the continent serves as an easy and inexpensive substitute for the real rigors of outer space.

“Some of the strategic challenges [for housing] we have are very similar to what you have in the Antarctic,” said Larry Toups, with NASA’s Constellation Program Lunar Surface Systems Project Office at Johnson Space Center.

Those challenges include developing a berthing design that is reusable by multiple crews and multiple missions, as well as one with a modular design that can be expanded and reconfigured for a variety of uses. The workhorse for the U.S. Antarctic Program for decades has been the Jamesway hut, not unlike the tents featured in the popular television show MASH.

Gerard Valle, project manager for the team from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, noted that an inflatable habitat is lighter, offers more space and can be deployed much quicker than the Jamesway.

“There are benefits there for going to remote field stations, especially if lower mass is required, and quicker deployment,” he said.

So the National Science Foundation (NSF), looking for alternative housing for fieldwork, has provided the real estate and support to NASA to the test the air-filled building for the next year. A private company, ILC Dover, is the third partner in the venture and manufactured the prototype. (See related story: To the Moon.)

The habitat is but one component of a return mission to the moon by 2020. The entire adventure is under the umbrella of the Constellation Program, the nation’s next major human space-flight program. It includes the design and development of a new spaceship called Orion that will replace the current space shuttle.

“Imagine, if you will, Apollo on steroids. It can carry as many as six crew members,” said Toups, referring to the cone-shaped spacecraft that carried Americans to the moon from 1969 to 1972.

The 1970s retro look — but with 21st century avionics — includes the launch vehicle, dubbed Ares, which would carry the crew and cargo in Orion to a low-Earth orbit, where it would rendezvous with the lunar lander, named Altair. NASA plans to test the flight system with early missions to the International Space Station by 2015.

In the next four years, Toups said, the space agency would begin work on a final design for a lunar habitat, where crews will eventually stay up to six months at a time. The inflatable building is only one concept of many on the drawing board. Other ideas involve hard-shelled modules, or hybrids that blend hard and soft concepts, like an expanding accordion.

“One of the largest challenges we have is protecting the crewmembers from not only galactic cosmic radiation, but also from solar flare events that may occur while they’re staying on the surface,” said Toups, an architect by training.

Toups said NASA has little experience with planetary housing, as the Apollo landings lasted only a few days. Valle noted that in essence spacesuits represent an inflatable — and proven — subsystem.

The habitat package weighs in at less than 1,000 pounds. Actual inflation time after the stakes are in place is about 10 minutes. The team outfitted the building with a variety of instruments and monitors, such as wireless sensors to track pressure and temperature, along with air quality and power consumption.

A power hog is no use to NASA or the NSF, Valle noted. A key system is the pump that maintains air pressure after the initial inflation. “It occasionally turns on and re-inflates the structure,” he said.

Might something similar really pop up on the moon someday? “I definitely think it’s a credible system,” Valle said.

If so, there would be some historical serendipity involved if all goes as planned. That’s because NASA is eyeing the Shackleton Crater at the moon’s south pole as its first landing site.

“The reason for going to Shackleton is that the rim of Shackleton Crater has a great deal of sunlight available to it a majority of the year,” Toups said.

Engineers hope to harness that free and weightless energy with photovoltaic cells. Hydrogen signatures in the crater indicate there may be ice and hence water for use, he added. The moon’s basaltic content could, in theory, be used to fire bricks for construction.

Toups compared the venture to that of the early Antarctic explorers, gesturing to Robert F. Scott’s century-old Discovery Hut, a stone’s throw away from McMurdo Station. Built in 1901, the square-shaped cabin housed several expeditions during the early 20th century. It is now a historical monument.

“You’re allowing crewmembers to live in very Spartan environment initially, and then to live off the land as time goes on,” he said.

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