The Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships program

The Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships program, or NextSTEP, is a public-private partnership model that seeks commercial development of deep space exploration capabilities to support more extensive human spaceflight missions in and beyond cislunar space: the space near Earth that extends just beyond the Moon. NextSTEP is managed by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES).

An important part of NASA’s strategy is to stimulate the commercial space industry to help NASA achieve its strategic goals and objectives for expanding the frontiers of knowledge, capability, and opportunities in outer space. A key component of the NextSTEP partnership model is that it provides an opportunity for NASA and industry to partner to develop capabilities that meet NASA human space exploration objectives while also supporting industry commercialisation plans.

Advanced Exploration Systems

AES pioneers new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities, and validating operational concepts for future human missions beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). AES activities are uniquely related to crew safety and mission operations in deep space, and are strongly coupled to future vehicle development. NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) division is pioneering innovative approaches and public-private partnerships to rapidly develop prototype systems, advance key capabilities, and validate operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.

AES activities are related to crew mobility, habitation, vehicle systems, robotic precursors, and foundational systems for deep space. These activities are strongly coupled with future vehicle development while advancing critical competencies at the NASA centres. AES infuses new technologies developed by the Space Technology Mission Directorate and partners with the Science Mission Directorate to address Strategic Knowledge Gaps for multiple destinations.

AES activities reduce risk and improve affordability of deep space mission elements. In addition to developing building blocks for future missions, AES is exploring innovative ways to drive a rapid pace of progress, streamline project management, and use limited resources, the NASA workforce, and citizen innovators more effectively.

By engaging in strategic partnerships with commercial space industry and government agencies, AES is able to rapidly advance new technologies, reduce risk, and reduce cost for all partners involved. AES has active collaborations with other government agencies to advance the state of the art and leads several public-private partnerships with the commercial sector, spurring economic growth in new space markets.

AES is focused on early integration and testing of prototype systems to reduce risk and improve affordability of deep space mission elements. AES demonstrates these systems in ground-based test beds, field tests, underwater tests, flight experiments on the space station, and deep space missions.

The Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships program

NASA issued the original NextSTEP Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) to U.S. industry in late 2014, and issued the second NextSTEP BAA in April 2016. NASA hopes to incorporate modules and parts developed in the NextSTEP project into the follow on Deep Space Gateway and Deep Space Transport projects.

In 2015, building on the success of NASA’s partnerships with commercial industry to date, NASA has selected twelve Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) to advance concept studies and technology development projects in the areas of advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellites. “Through these public-private partnerships, selected companies will partner with NASA to develop the exploration capabilities necessary to enable commercial endeavours in space and human exploration to deep-space destinations such as the proving ground of space around the Moon, known as cis-lunar space, and Mars”.

Results from these studies and hardware developments also will help determine the role for international partner involvement, by fully exploring domestic capabilities, and for Orion and Space Launch Systems missions in cis-lunar space. This work also will advance system understanding and define a need for further testing of habitation systems and components on the International Space Station (ISS). “Commercial partners were selected for their technical ability to mature key technologies and their commitment to the potential applications both for government and private sector uses” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters. “This work ultimately will inform the strategy to move human presence further into the Solar System”.

Starting in September 2016 under NextSTEP-2 Appendix A, six companies were given approximately twenty-four months to develop ground prototypes or conduct concept studies for a Deep Space Habitat. Habitation systems provide a safe place for humans to live as humans move beyond Earth, especially in the context of Mars. The selected companies were: 1. Bigelow Aerospace; 2. Boeing; 3. Lockheed Martin; 4. Orbital ATK; 5. Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems; and 6. NanoRacks. In August 2016, NASA estimated the combined total of all the awards, covering work in 2016 and 2017, would be approximately sixty-five million American dollars, with additional efforts and funding continuing into 2018. Partners were required to contribute at least thirty percent of the cost of the overall proposed effort.

In December 2017 NASA issued several sets of announcements, contracts and Space Act Agreements (SAA). In the first, NASA issued a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) requesting “proposals for trade studies and design, fabrication, and testing of critical components and subsystems for acquisition and processing of extraterrestrial resources into water, oxygen, and fuel”. In January 2018, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) was granted a contract modification permitting the development of advanced bio-based life support and food production systems. The aim is to produce plant-based modules that can recycle drinking water from waste water streams, regenerate oxygen from carbon dioxide, produce fresh food for astronauts, and support radiation protection of the crew while on deep exploration missions, such as missions to Mars.

In December 2018, NASA announced that it was issuing a formal request for proposals as Appendix E of NextSTEP-2 allowing American companies to submit bids for the design and development of new reusable systems allowing astronauts to land on the lunar surface. In March 2019, NASA announced that NextSTEP-2 ground prototypes have been delivered to several of its sites for testing. The prototypes were full size. The fittings included environmental control and life support systems, avionics, sleeping quarters, exercise equipment, and communal areas. In April 2019, NASA announced a formal request for proposals for Appendix H of NextSTEP-2 allowing American companies to submit bids for the design and development of the Ascent Element of the Human Landing System (HLS) including the cabin used during landings.

Blue Moon

Blue Moon is a robotic space cargo carrier and lander for making cargo deliveries to the Moon. Designed and operated by Blue Origin for use on a mission aimed for 2024, Blue Moon derives from the vertical landing technology used in Blue Origin’s New Shepard sub-orbital rocket.

The lander is planned to be capable of delivering four thousand and five hundred kilograms to the surface of the Moon. The cargo vehicle could also be used to support NASA activities in cis-lunar space, or transport payloads of ice from Shackleton Crater to support space activities. The first projected mission for the craft would be a 2024 lunar south pole landing. It is proposed that a series of landings could be used to deliver the infrastructure for a Moon base. Blue Origin began development work on the lander in 2016, publicly disclosed the project in 2017, and unveiled a mock-up of the Blue Moon lander in May 2019.