In the 1960s, as it cast about for ideas about what to do after the Apollo Moon program, NASA considered re-using the spent upper stages of its large rockets as space stations. Ultimately, however, the agency dismissed this “wet workshop” concept and modified an upper stage on the ground for its Skylab program.
However, a Houston-based company named Nanoracks has revised the “wet workshop” concept, hoping to convert the spent upper stages of rockets into in-space habitats. “We are keen on bringing the wet lab back as an architecture,” Adrian Mangiuca, who directs commerce for Nanoracks, said in an interview. “We think it is the future.”
To that end, the company announced this week that it aims to perform a demonstration test in the fourth quarter of 2020. It will fly on a rocket—Mangiuca declined to name the launch provider—as as a secondary customer. After the primary mission, and other customers deploy their payloads, Nanoracks will attempt to heat and then cut three samples of metal used in upper stages. It will have about 30 minutes to an hour to perform these tasks with a robotic arm before the upper stage fires its engine to initiate a de-orbit burn.
The goal, Mangiuca said, is to show the ability to safely cut through an upper stage in space. For this mission, the aim is to show that a robot can cut metal and that it can be done without producing orbital debris. Longer term, Nanoracks anticipates needing to cut through the bulkhead of a spent upper stage in space to access the interior.
Making space cheaper
To date, the company has received about $15 million from NASA through the agency’s NextSTEP-2 program, which seeks to foster new technologies for developing in-space habitats. Eventually, the agency could purchase some of these in-space outposts as a means of stimulating a low-Earth orbit economy, but Mangiuca acknowledged that there is a long path from these initial tests to a livable habitat.
However, Nanoracks also announced an agreement on Tuesday that will allow it to continue experimenting. A Canadian company, Maritime Launch Services, is working to bring the Ukrainian-built Cyclone-4M rocket to a launch site in Nova Scotia. This rocket has an upper stage with a diameter of 4 meters. Nanoracks said it has signed an agreement with Maritime Launch Services to experiment with re-purposing and re-using these spent upper stages.
“It’s Nanoracks vision to re-purpose upper stages of launch vehicles and convert them into Outposts,” the company’s chief executive, Jeff Manber, said in a statement. “We envision populating the solar system with efficient platforms, that can serve as hotels, research parks, fuel depots, storage centers and more.”
Nanoracks views itself as an architect rather than a manufacturer, so this plan fits within the company’s ambitions of finding and developing the most-cost effective outposts in space. By finding cheaper places to live in space, or store materials, the company hopes to open the business of space to a wider range of customers.