WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- The newest omnibus spending bill ensures NASA will be funded for the next year, but some of the money comes with specific demands.
Congress wants the space agency to build habitat for deep space exploration. The bill allots $55 million for a "habitation augmentation module" -- part of the $350 million earmarked for research related to the Advanced Exploration Systems program.
The directions come with urgency. Congress wants a report delivered within 180 days on how the $55 million will be spent, and they expect a module prototype by 2018.
NASA has been discussing a habitation module for several years. The Orion capsule is NASA's primary vehicle for a manned mission to Mars. But while it can fit up to six astronauts, it would be tight quarters for the six-month trek.
Engineers at NASA have suggested Orion might link up with a larger space station-like module en route, offering the Mars-bound voyagers a little breathing room and some privacy. So far there are only loose plans for such a module, with hopes of testing a prototype in the 2020s.
The latest demands from Congress mean NASA will have to accelerate those plans.
NASA has already contracted several aerospace companies to come up with ideas for a deep space habitation module. With up to $1 million granted to Boeing, Lockheed, Martin, Orbital ATK and others.
"We plan to leverage the output of those studies to shape our plan and then go to a next round," Sam Scimemi, space station director at NASA, told attendees at a Space Transportation Association luncheon earlier this month.
Bigelow Aerospace may be the company most poised to benefit from NASA's newly accelerated timeline. The company has used NASA's research money to develop an inflatable module that will be tested on the International Space Station in 2016.