Image: Illustration of a moon base concept
NASA
This NASA illustration shows a moon base concept that uses both fixed and inflatable habitat elements to support astronauts living on the lunar surface.
By
updated 7/13/2010 7:03:52 PM ET 2010-07-13T23:03:52

NASA has launched a summer contest for students to design the best inflatable loft for life in space or on another world. A cash reward and a field test of the winning design are up for grabs.

Three awards of up to $48,000 each will be granted to the university student teams that produce the best loft-like inflatable space habitats that can be attached to a hard-shell NASA structure. The winner of a head-to-head competition of the modules' performance in the Arizona desert will earn another $10,000, NASA officials said in an announcement.

The X-Hab contest, short for "eXploration Habitat," follows in the tradition of NASA's Lunabotics program and the space-related X Prize awards offered by the non-profit X Prize Foundation to spur interest in aerospace fields.

"The idea is that the students will be able to learn and learn about teamship, systems engineering, and also learn about the future of design for habitats but also innovative technology like inflatable structures," said NASA space architect and Habitat Demonstration Unit project manager Kriss Kennedy. "We're basically growing our next generation of engineers and architects. They're actually taking what they're learning in school and applying it."

The contest is sponsored by NASA's Exploration Mission Directorate in conjunction with the Office of the Chief Technologist's Innovative Partnerships Program.

Building a better space house
Though NASA has produced prototypes of inflatable habitats in the past, the space agency now wants to engage and encourage students.

"Students will actually be able to be involved with designing and testing these projects, as we go beyond low Earth orbit," Kennedy told SPACE.com.

The winning team will then try out its design in the space agency's 2011 field test campaign in Arizona, or in a similar set of trials in 2012, NASA officials said.

In the past, NASA has tested inflatable habitats in Antarctica to support its Constellation program aimed at returning astronauts to the moon. But since the proposed cancellation of that program earlier this year by President Barack Obama, the ultimate target of such equipment designed to foster lunar or Mars exploration is an evolving question.

Image:
NASA
An inflatable prototype for a lunar habitat, on display at ILC Dover's Delaware facility.

Inflatable homes in space
Commercial companies have also experimented with inflatable space habitats.

The Las Vegas-based company Bigelow Aerospace has built and launched two inflatable modules (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2) into orbit to test systems and technology for a planned private space station. The company also envisions using inflatable modules to build a private moon base, Bigelow Aerospace officials have said.

But NASA work still continues. For example, NASA's Activation Missions Systems Directorate, and the Directorate Integration Office, created lab work stations this year that could occupy a moon or Mars base.

"Right now we're looking at a combination of hard and soft structures ... We're looking at hybrids," Kennedy said, adding that the agency plans to test fixed habitats later this year. "This year we built a core shell that is a hard structure. It's short and round, more like a tuna can, squat. It's not like a space station module, that is a long cylinder."

A medical operations area, and a geosciences lab glove box, were all constructed from a hard shell in contrast to next year's focus on habitats and inflatable structures, Kennedy said.

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