Lockheed Martin Nextstep concept
By Keith Cowing
When developing new technology, rarely is having it explode a good thing.
Unless you’re demonstrating that an inflatable habitat is capable of surviving environments beyond the extremes of space.
As part of NASA’s NextSTEP program, Lockheed Martin is developing an inflatable structure technology to support human space habitation in low-Earth orbit, at the Moon and beyond.
Last week, Lockheed Martin reached a critical milestone in developing this next-generation technology (completely in-house) by successfully completing an ultimate burst pressure test, achieving a burst at 285 psi and more than six times the max operating pressure.
What’s a burst test? Pretty close to what it sounds like: a test that pressurizes a subscale or full-scale inflatable habitat until it literally bursts. The goal of the burst is to test the strength of the habitat many times beyond what it will experience in space to validate its design – similar to the structural loads testing typically done on other spacecraft like Orion.
Taken to a pressure many times its design criteria, the test unit was outfitted with hundreds of sensors and monitored with high-speed cameras—all providing thousands of valuable data points into exactly how and where the expandable habitat failed.
The second of two development tests on our inflatable habitat prototype, last week’s test was conducted at Lockheed Martin Space’s Waterton Canyon facility in Colorado on a historic Titan rocket hot-fire test stand.
“Our inflatable design has performed phenomenally, and we’re excited to take a comprehensive look at the data that was collected during both tests,” said Tyler Muma, Lockheed Martin’s Softgoods Technology Lead. “This tech demo is the first step in proving out our inflatable habitat design, which we are confident will be one of the key enablers to make human life in space easier and allow humans to explore further into space than ever before.”
The inflatable technology under development by Lockheed Martin has the potential for a broad range of uses in space across a variety of missions. As a habitat, inflatables pave the way for a feasible and affordable path for extra-large living spaces for humans in low-Earth orbit, in a Mars transport system such as Mars Base Camp, and in habitats on the Lunar and Martian surfaces. Inflatables can also be used as large, modular storage spaces or equipment hangers, providing the volume required to sustain a long-term human presence on the Moon and eventually Mars.
Inflatables provide more volume per mass than other habitat technologies, outperform traditional metallic structures in numerous ways, are affordable, easily launched and proven – an inflatable, human-rated module has been in use by NASA and attached to the International Space Station since 2016. Inflatable habitats usher in the capability to build space destinations with less weight, more volume and fewer launches required than traditional metallic, hard-sided structures.
“Together, our two successful tests support validation of our design and manufacturing processes, increasing confidence in the reliability and capability of our inflatable habitat to meet all of our future customers’ performance needs, regardless of their specific uses,” said Muma.
“The goal is to advance our inflatable technology beyond existing capabilities and to enable larger and more diverse living spaces in extreme environments. This is critical to ensure that our design can support multiple missions while continuing to keep humans safe as they live and work in space further from Earth, and for longer stretches than ever before.”
Lockheed Martin is continuing to invest in inflatable habitats to remain the industry leader in future space habitation. This year’s tests are just the beginning of Lockheed Martin’s inflatable habitat development path that will be a cornerstone of human life in space for decades to come.