If you are like most Americans, at some point in your life you may have dreamed of space travel. The allure of traversing the heavens or planting a flag on the moon in an astronaut suit have danced in the visions of many children although only a chosen few have realized a trip to space. Today, there are companies that are working towards the goal of making space travel accessible to anyone who can afford a ticket. And a few companies are thinking in even broader terms… by developing vehicles that can travel from bases to planets or even housing of sorts, making life in outer space a very real possibility.

Last year,  NASA started working with six companies to develop space vehicles as part of its NextSTEP program. NextSTEP, or Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, is NASA’s foray into a marriage between public and private partners to foster   “commercial development of deep space exploration capabilities to support more extensive human spaceflight missions in the Proving Ground around and beyond cislunar space – the space near Earth that extends just beyond the moon.” (1)  Or, in other words, NextSTEP wants to further NASA’s human space exploration goals while adding a commercial factor, one that would expand our knowledge, capabilities and opportunities in space. Incredibly exciting in theory and in scope, it is of little surprise that renowned companies such as Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada and Boeing would jump at the chance to get in on the action.

So what would developing suitable habitats for future space travelers look like? Well, to find out what it takes to create a place where humans could theoretically live outside of their own planet, the companies working with the NextSTEP program are building and experimenting with prototypes here on Earth. While Boeing is testing a design based on its’ modular habitat system, Lockheed Martin is transforming one of its multi-purpose modules into a habitat complete with Environmental Controls and a Life Support System. Not entirely new to space travel, these multi-purpose modules are currently used to carry supplies to the International Space Station.

Still other companies have taken different directions. Orbital ATK is working on a spacecraft designed to stay between earth and the moon. Sierra Nevada’s prototype will combine its Dream Chaser vehicle, a commercial space shuttle, with an inflatable component and propulsion system.  Yet another company, Bigelow Aerospace, is building their prototype based on an add-on to the International Space Station, also currently in development.

Which one of these ideas will create the perfect environment to host and house humans in outer space remains to be seen. One day, one or more of these may serve as a stopover for astronauts headed to Mars, serve as a docking station for other space vehicles or house critical research facilities for human space exploration. What was once thought of as unrealistic could be a reality as early as the 2020’s. Whatever shape the prototypes take will certainly usher in an exciting time for space travel, and perhaps a renewed passion for children’s cosmic dreams of ascending into space.