On 18th December President Obama signed a spending bill for NASA to cover the whole of 2016. The bill increased the NASA budget by over 10% from 2015, including $4 billion for the human exploration programme.
This included more than NASA had asked for by way of funding for the Space Launch System, the long awaited replacement for the Saturn V, and further funding for the Orion exploration capsule that will ride atop the SLS. Fuller details of this, and the schedule for Orion and SLS development and initial deployment, can be found in a good piece by Jason Davis of the Planetary Society.
It also included “…no less than $55,000,000 is provided for a habitation augmentation module to maximize the potential of the SLS/Orion architecture in deep space. NASA shall develop a prototype deep space habitation module within the advanced exploration systems program no later than 2018 and provide a report within 180 days after enactment, and annually thereafter, regarding the status and obligation of funding for the program.”
Wow, Obama wants to build an interplanetary spaceship, and he wants to build it now! That’s alright by me.
The Orion on its own is suitable for trips to the ISS and to lunar orbit. It hasn’t got enough crew space longer duration trips. Imagine sending the Appolo command module on a nine month trip and you get the picture.
But a purpose built habitation module attached to it could extend its useful range to near Earth asteroids and to Mars. With a nuclear propulsion system it might allow the asteroid belt and the Jupiter system to be reached.
An instruction to build a prototype is obviously early days and probably at a decade or two from building deployable hardware, but this definitely shows the right intentions? Very exciting stuff.
Why now? Obama is entering his final year as President, and presumably isn’t quite as concerned as he would otherwise have been to have the budget balance. He might also want to get this started now as his successor, Republican or Democrat, may not be as enthusiastic about extending human space exploration. Let’s hope that’s not the case.