The Defense Innovation Unit of the Pentagon announced a call for ideas for a small, autonomous military space station this week.
The “solicitation brief,” known in civilian circles as a request for proposal, seeks “solutions for a self-contained and free flying orbital outpost. The solution must be capable of supporting space assembly, microgravity experimentation, logistics and storage, manufacturing, training, test and evaluation, hosting payloads, and other functions.”
It specifies no more than 35 cubic feet of available experimentation space, indicating it is inappropriate for human habitation. The craft must be able to move in its own orbit, be made of material conducive to low Earth orbit, and be ready for flight two years after a contractor is chosen, the brief stipulates.
The space station would be scalable, or expandable, with the capability of carrying attachments, such as an exterior robotic arm, and eventually, human passengers. The brief does not specifically address the craft’s purpose, but appears to be a space station exclusively for military purposes.
A 186-pound payload is also specified, as well as “zero to one atmosphere pressurization,” indication the craft would operate in near-vacuum conditions and further suggesting that it will not be designed for human space travel.
In the early 1960s, the U.S. Air Force proposed a similar effort, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, which was scrapped after it was determined that satellites could accomplish tasks less expensively. The Soviet Union had several manned military space stations, known as the Salyut series, but those, too were eliminated in favor of satellites.
The Pentagon currently seeks only ideas on what to launch into space, what Col. Steve Bulow of the DIU called “the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why,'” and must adhere to the Outer Space Treaty, which specifies a ban on nuclear weapons in space.