Somewhere deep in the Marshall Space Center, in an unmarked beige hangar, NASA is building a spaceship. A spaceship built with spare parts, scrap hardware from the International Space Stations, a left-over aluminum-lithium cylinder and even museum mockups. One day, it may become the vessel that takes humans to Mars.

NASA engineers lead by Paul Bookout are talking about it at the the Fifth Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium, happening now in Huntsville, Alabama. Bookout's team is working with a team from the Johnson Space Center in Houston led by astronaut Benjamin Alvin Drew, a USAF Colonel who's been to space twice, including on the last mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

According to Bookout, the team is using its spaceship habitat to look at volume studies: "Are the crew quarters going to be the right size, the waste and hygiene compartment, the wardroom, the exercise area—we're looking at all those for this extended stay."


The spaceship model that Bookout and his colleagues are building is a medium-fidelity version of the habitat that may shelter the astronauts that go to Mars for the first time. It includes crew quarters that are two times as big as the crew space in the ISS, with everything they need to survive, including food storage.

There's also a science bay that also serves as a greenhouse in which they will be able to grow plants during their trip. You know, just like in the movies.


Water shields and the Star Trek-ish 3D replicator

The Mars spaceship habitat is surrounded by a wall of water, which will protect the astronauts against radiation. Water is a great insulator against the dangerous galactic cosmic rays and solar flares that may otherwise kill the astronauts after such an extended period of time in space.

But the awesomerest detail may actually be the onboard replicator. It will not be a Star Trek device, but rather a 3D printer that will make tools and parts as the crew demands, recycling old tools, food containers and any other discarded material.

It's good to know that Mars plans are still advancing, even while NASA's future budget depends on yet another election and faces perhaps yet another round of financial cuts. It's still a move forward, even if it's made of scraps and museum mockups. [Aviation Week and NASA]