New initiative by Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK announced about their proposal of creating manned Cislunar Outpost for NASA.

It is possible that this project should be considered as future NASA plan for possessing habitable place in space also with future possibility of permanent habitation. Orbital ATK announced on May 18, 2016, about their project of creating cislunar space station based on their Cygnus spacecraft. Future habitable version of Cygnus would serve as research laboratory and possible place for preparing deep space exploration mission including manned Mars mission. According to statement, which was part of the speech in front of House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space, given by President of the Space Systems Group (subsidiary of Orbital ATK) Frank Gulbertson it is remarkable chance for improving position of the America in space exploration. It should be also considered as great chance for better utilization of future launch vehicles and spacecrafts like SLS and Orion:

“A lunar-orbit habitat will extend America’s leadership in space to the cislunar domain. A robust program to build, launch and operate this initial outpost would be built on NASA’s and our international partners’ experience gained in long-duration human space flight on the International Space Station and would make use of the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion deep-space transportation system.”

First part of the future station, Cygnus modified module, will be launched on atop of commercial launch vehicle on 2020. It will spend on cislunar orbit one year and after performing all necessary tests, first astronauts will reach station onboard of the Orion spacecraft in 2021. Next modules will be delivered to lunar orbit on atop of SLS rocket in 2022-2025 years. Time period, which is covering upgrading station with further modules, coincides with the date of the EM-2 mission (first manned mission of the Orion spacecraft and first American manned mission beyond LEO since last Apollo mission in December 1972). It is possible that NASA will utilize new station during first cislunar journeys under EM-2 on 2023, for example for practicing docking and rendez vous in deep space conditions.

Proposition announced by Orbital ATK is result of choosing Company for NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. It was announced on March 30, 2015. NextSTEP is public-private partnership focused on creating new technologies for deep space exploration with with particular emphasis on Moon and Mars. Program was covering new electric propulsion technologies along with new ideas for creating future habitable place in space. Seven companies with their projects achieved donation from NASA in 2015 at a value of $400000 to $1 million: Orbital ATK, Bigelow Aerospace LLC, Boeing, Dynetics Inc., Lockheed Martin, Hamilton Sundstrand Space Systems International and Orbital Technologies Corporation. It is also a result of long term planning of increasing number of mission focused on exploration by NASA something more than LEO. NASA, which is still participating in ISS until 2024, is starting to seriously planning next two decades. With increased presence of China and their plans for Tianhe space station along with declared (read more here and here) will of exploring space between Moon and Earth, NASA would like to remain a leader. With Cislunar space station NASA will achieve new possibilities for research and science experiments, not to mention about making any Moon manned mission easier. Moon lander and crew could be delivered during separate flights and perform Moon landing from station; It would make whole mission much easier and would result in possibility of multiple Moon landing during one mission. Station would also make possible creating Moon base easier - astronauts who would fly to the Moon to establish base could return from Moon surface to station and wait for supplies and additional elements for assembling station, without expensive flights back to Earth or waiting in small spacecraft on Moon orbit.

To strengthen awareness of fact that ISS is reaching its end should be recent conference between NASA and Roscosmos. Both organizations decided to organize bilateral Technical Interchange Meeting (TIM) to discuss about possibilities of deorbiting International Space Station after it reach its end of life or in case of emergency. ISS is getting older and due the fact that ISS was under continuous development, all modules have been in space since their first assembling. They were not changed or swapped for new for example first module Zarya remains in space for almost 18 years. NASA and Roscosmos are aware of fact that it is long time and it should be taken under consideration that some problems with ISS could appear before 2024. NASA would like to avoid situation when ultimate space station in space would be Chinese Tianhe and establish new station (even if it would not be as impressive as ISS) before 2024.

On picture above: Cygnus grabbed by Canadarm2 - Let's imagine it with Moon instead Earth in the background...

Sources:
http://www.nasa.gov/press/2015/march/nasa-announces-new-partnerships-with-us-industry-for-key-deep-space-capabilities
https://www.orbitalatk.com/news-room/release.asp?prid=150
https://www.orbitalatk.com/news-room/feature-stories/NEXTStep/default.aspx
https://www.nasaspaceflight.com