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Planning, Architecture & Analysis

Updated Feb 1, 2024


NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) is a key contributor to NASA’s return to the moon under Artemis. Working with our partners in industry, academia and the international community, the Moon to Mars Architecture is a roadmap for the long-term exploration of the lunar surface, our first steps on Mars and the journey beyond. We create the plans for sending people back to the Moon and on to Mars. We provide planning, architecture and analysis support to NASA’s exploration programs, which stitch together the pieces that make NASA’s missions possible. 

JSC has several groups that provide capabilities and expertise in Planning, Architecture and Analysis. NASA’s Flight Operations Directorate (FOD) utilizes operational expertise to influence exploration spacecraft design. The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) is a versatile facility, one of the world’s largest indoor pools, supporting large-scale simulations for lunar or Mars missions. The Center for Design and Space Architecture (CDSA) focuses on human-centered design, providing functional solutions synchronized with integrated systems. The Exploration Mission Planning Office (EMPO) enhances mission planning with high-performance computing and data analytics expertise. EMPO leads in mission design, human-in-the-loop testing, and analog mission planning. The Lunar Architecture Team (LAT) and Mars Architecture Team (MAT) focus on lunar and Mars mission architectures, contributing to the long-term vision of human space exploration. The Exploration Development Integration Division (EDI) ensures program integration, human exploration requirements development, and verification/validation. 

Embracing innovation and collaboration, the Johnson Space Center extends a warm invitation to external partners to harness our capabilities. Together, we cultivate a collective dedication to pushing the frontiers of human spaceflight. Delve into the capabilities outlined below and join us on the thrilling adventure of space exploration as we pioneer at the forefront of discovery. 

Architecture & Concept Formulation

Lunar Mission Architecture 

Overview | The Lunar Architecture Team (LAT) defines lunar conceptual reference missions, architectures, and assessment of alternatives, as well as key performance parameters needed for lunar orbital and surface missions. 

Details |

  • Define conceptual and reference missions for lunar environments
  • Define lunar mission architecture and perform alternative assessments 
  • Lunar mission timeline and site planning 
  • Develop and refine both crewed and uncrewed activities on the moon for future missions to include concept of operations, timeline development, and site planning 
  • Develop conceptual white papers to define and document NASA approaches to lunar architecture 

Mars Campaign Architecture 

Overview | The Mars Architecture Team (MAT) is responsible for developing human Mars conceptual reference missions, architectures, and assessment of alternatives that provide the future mission context needed to assess Mars-forward extensibility and commonality. 

Details |

  • Define human Mars conceptual reference missions, architecture, and alternative assessments
  • Define mission elements and performance parameters for crewed Mars missions
  • Identify technology gaps and associated decision points related to Mars architecture
  • Define Mars analog needs on Earth, ISS, Gateway and the lunar surface
  • Develop and refine the crewed and uncrewed activities on Mars for future missions
  • Determine functional allocations for Mars elements
  • Identify challenges/disconnects related to the Mars architecture
  • Develop Architecture Concept Review (ACR) documentation
  • Provide information and analyses to support evolving Agency and Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) strategic planning, including Artemis extensibility to Mars

Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) 

Overview | The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) is one of the world’s largest indoor pools and can support multiple large-scale operations utilizing both underwater and topside assets simultaneously. The NBL is utilized for mission planning, procedure development, hardware verification, astronaut training, and refinement of time-critical operations necessary to ensure mission success. 

Details |

  • NBL has a volume of 6.2 million gallons with dimensions of length: 202 ft (61.5 m), width: 102 ft (31.1 m), and depth: 40 ft (12.2 m)
  • Chlorinated freshwater environment with a temperature range of 84°-86° F (29.9°-30° C) 
  • An integrated process to support operations assessments, integration, test readiness, and execution
  • Facility scheduling capabilities enable multiple large-scale operations simultaneously 
  • Multiple integrated control rooms 
  • Clean climate-controlled environment
  • Extensive video, audio, and instrumentation capabilities 
  • Multiple crane systems for equipment handling 
  • SCUBA and surface supplied dive systems 
  • On-site engineering and technical services 
  • Co-located logistics and manufacturing facility
  • ISO level 8 clean room to support maintenance and repair capabilities 
  • Located next to the Houston Ellington Airfield with access to a taxiway 
  • Within the facility, the NBL has a hyperbaric chamber, a hypobaric altitude chamber, a medical treatment room and locker room facilities 
  • Classroom, meeting, high-bay work areas, and outdoor space to support training or hardware storage 
  • World class safety culture 

Surface Robotics and Mobility 

Overview | The current architectures proposed for crewed planetary missions include significant periods of time in which the planetary base of operations remains dormant with no crew present. During this dormancy period, robotics can be used to maximize the use of the time while crew is present, as well as enable mission objectives which would otherwise not be possible. The Surface Robotics and Mobility team is an interdivisional working group that aims to propose, design, and test robotic concepts that enable the mission of human spaceflight by utilizing this time. Potential robotic operations include logistics transfer and staging, site preparation, and maintenance tasks. 

Details |

  • Concept development of electric vehicles for extra-planetary or terrestrial off-road use in extreme environments
  • Active suspension systems 
  • Vehicle autonomy and navigation 
  • Efficient motor control
  • Physical emulation of robotic devices with motion platforms 
  • Development of Intra-vehicular robotics concepts for remote operations in crew tended spacecraft 
  • Development of Extra-vehicular systems management concepts to provide in situ operational autonomy 
  • Large scale element mobility concepts 
  • Clear definitions of interfaces and interdependencies
  • Robotic docking and berthing concepts and analysis 
  • Interfaces with industry leaders to develop spaceflight partnerships 
  • Testing and data transparency to inform key architectural decisions outside the team 
  • Robot-compatible interface development and testing (i.e. fluid, gas, & power transfer) 

Center for Design and Space Architecture 

Overview | The Center for Design and Space Architecture (CDSA) is NASA’s conceptual, human centered design studio. They leverage skill in architecture and industrial design to provide customers with functional, intuitive solutions that synchronize with the integrated system. 

Details | The CDSA employs an iterative design process and utilizes a variety of digital and physical mediums, including Computer-aided drafting (CAD), virtual reality, and full-scale mockups, to quickly progress design maturity for human spaceflight systems. 

  • Space Architecture: interior architecture, mission architecture, functional allocation, volumetric analysis 
  • Design: concept development, CAD modeling, mass and volume estimation, rendering, mockup, and prototype design 
  • Virtual Reality: design review and evaluation, task simulation, crewed human-in-the-loop (HITL) testing 
  • Prototyping: 3d printing, CNC, foam core, polycarbonates, wood, metal
  • Mockups: part-task, full-scale, test articles, functional prototypes

Mission Planning & Design

Astrodynamics, Mission Design, and Integrated Vehicle Performance 

Overview | NASA JSC analyzes and designs optimal spacecraft orbits and trajectories for human spaceflight missions. 

Details | NASA JSC provides design analysis and evaluation of mission concepts, vehicle flight performance capabilities and requirements, and preliminary guidance, navigation, and control (GN&C) requirements. This includes flight envelopes and trajectories for ascent, targeting and profiles for on-orbit rendezvous, interplanetary trajectories, and entry through landing trajectory designs. JSC can optimize end-to-end trajectories and vehicle performance for Low Earth Orbit, cislunar, and planetary missions. 

Vehicle Design and Development Support 

Overview | Flight Operations Directorate (FOD) utilizes our operational expertise to influence exploration spacecraft design and development. 

Details |

Development of operational concepts 

  • Vehicle development and testing support 
  • Development of onboard and ground procedures/products 
  • Systems analysis
  • Flight design and trajectory analysis 
  • Development of training concepts 
  • Human in the loop testing (HITL) 
  • Software and hardware limitations resolution and operational workaround design 
  • Crew displays, interface development, integration and testing
  • Spacecraft integration for proximity operations and docking 
  • User Operational Notes 

Exploration Mission Design, Integration, and Analysis 

Overview | The Exploration Mission Planning Office (EMPO) provides Agency leadership for the development and analysis of human spaceflight architectures, mission plans, and spacecraft and surface system definitions. EMPO integrates mission design and planning from concept through transition to the flight operations phase. They develop and recommend near term mission options reflecting the capabilities of the program elements and provide iterative mission planning to respond to actual constraints, priorities, and contingency needs. 

Details |

  • Mission design, integration, and analysis across the exo-LEO human spaceflight portfolio
  • Establishing mission objectives, ground rules and constraints 
  • Conducting mission trades for conditions, objectives, and design solutions
  • Identification of cross-program constraints and definition of mission achievability 
  • Landing site identification, analysis, and selection 
  • Mission availability assessments 
  • End-to-end trajectory design, optimization, and cross-agency implementation of mission design 
  • Coordination, integration and analysis of cross-program design constraints, product deliveries, and flight development 

Human in the Loop Testing and Analog Mission Planning and Execution 

Overview | The Exploration Mission Planning Office (EMPO) at NASA JSC provides organizational expertise for analog mission planning and execution and integration of operational testing for space exploration. Human-in-the-loop (HITL) testing develops and assesses systems, innovations, and operational approaches to inform strategic architectural concept of operations decisions. 

Details | The Exploration Mission Planning Office at NASA JSC provides analog mission planning and execution of integrated operational testing for space exploration. Human-in-the-loop (HITL) testing capabilities include establishing and coordinating a multi-disciplinary approach for operational testing, integrating analysis and development components across NASA, and using the results of testing in relevant environments for closing technology, exploration, and science knowledge questions, gaps, and risks.

Exploration Mission Data Analytics 

Overview | The Exploration Mission Planning Office (EMPO) provides high performance computing and data analytics expertise for enhanced data science and production capabilities. 

Details |

  • Trajectory database and post-processing tooling development
  • Analysis and production of mission management products and mission metrics 

Mission Simulation & Analysis

Trick Simulation Environment 

Overview | Trick is a powerful simulation development framework that enables users to build applications for all phases of space vehicle development. Trick expedites the creation of simulations for early vehicle design, performance evaluation, flight software development, flight vehicle dynamic load analysis, and virtual/hardware in the loop training. It provides a common set of simulation capabilities that allows users to concentrate on their domain specific models, rather than simulation-specific functions like job ordering, input file processing, or data recording. 

Details |

  • Trick Generic Simulation Toolkit for rapid development of high-fidelity simulations
  • Modular, reusable simulation packages to model the orbital environment (JEOD), multi-body dynamics (MBDYN), fluid dynamics (GUNNS), robotics (hydra), GN&C (Valkyrie), input devices (IDF), and displays & controls (DCAPP – ready to use applications) 
  • Six-Degrees-of-Freedom simulations of single- and multiple-vehicle missions for various flight phases 
  • User defined graphical user interfaces 

Systems Engineering Simulator (SES) 

Overview | The Systems Engineering Simulator (SES) provides immersive, human-in-the-loop simulations of NASA vehicles. These simulations utilize realistic cockpits that are typically installed within a dome visual system and paired with engineering-fidelity models of the vehicle systems and the space environments in which they operate. These simulations are utilized for all phases of a space mission, from early conceptualization through system development, mission planning, training, and operations. 

Details |

  • Two dome visual systems, one containing an ISS cupola mockup and the other containing an Orion mockup (either upright or reclined)
  • Six-Degrees-of-Freedom (6-DOF) motion table for simulating Artemis assets, including rovers and landers 
  • Video wall containing reconfigurable cockpits for assessing advanced concept vehicles
  • Math modeling of space vehicles and the environments in which they operate 
  • Study/training support to develop initial conditions, verify scenarios, support operations, and post-process data
  • Real-time maintenance support to resolve issues with minimal downtime 

Program Formulation

Human Exploration Cross-Program Integration 

Overview | Within the Exploration Architecture, Integration and Science (EAIS) Directorate at JSC, the Exploration Development Integration Division (EDI) provides expertise in integrating complex human spaceflight programs across common missions and architectures. 

Details | The Exploration Development Integration Division (EDI) delivers systems engineering, cross-program integration, and operations integration support to the entire Moon to Mars enterprise, supporting all Artemis programs. EDI supports design, development and operational life cycle activities and provides integration in support of the Artemis Missions and the Moon to Mars enterprise. 

  • Orion cross-program integration and crew systems integration 
  • Gateway risk management and human rating support 
  • Human Landing System (HLS) cross-program integration and leadership of the Crew Compartment Program Office 
  • Moon to Mars System Engineering and Integration support 

Human Exploration Program Formulation 

Overview | Within the Exploration Architecture, Integration and Science (EAIS) Directorate at JSC, the Exploration Development Integration (EDI) Division, provides expertise to human space flight programs for systems and program integration activities supporting program formulation, design, development, and operational life cycle activities. 

Details | The Exploration Development Integration Division (EDI) delivers systems engineering, cross-program integration, and operations integration support to the entire Moon to Mars enterprise, supporting all Artemis programs. EDI supports design, development and operational life cycle activities and provides integration in support of the Artemis Missions and the Moon to Mars enterprise. 

Human Exploration Program Requirements Development, Verification and Validation 

Overview | Within the Exploration Architecture, Integration and Science (EAIS) Directorate at JSC, the Exploration Development Integration Division (EDI) integrates processes and products across human exploration program and project life cycles. Systems Engineering expertise in requirements development, verification and validation is available. 

Details |

  • Within the Exploration Architecture, Integration and Science (EAIS) Directorate at JSC, the Exploration Development Integration Division (EDI) integrates processes and products across human exploration program and project lifecycles
  • Concept of operations development 
  • Requirements development 
  • Model-Based System Engineering (MBSE) 
  • Requirements verification and validation 
  • Integrated system risk management 
  • Development and execution of certification of flight readiness processes  
  • Integrated avionics and software, imagery, and human rating
Nujoud Merancy, architecture lead for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, speaks during NASA’s Moon to Mars Architecture Workshop, Tuesday, June 27, 2023, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. Following the release of the 2022 Architecture Concept Review, NASA is conducting the workshop to engage the broader space community and collect feedback from U.S. industry and academia to inform the Moon to Mars mission architecture and operational delivery.
Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)
Artist concept for NASA astronauts on Mars
Credit: JPL/NASA
Arizona Field Test.
Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford
Test subjects performing mission-relevant tasks and evaluating shadow quality during NBL Preliminary Lunar Lighting Evaluation. Divers at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) in Houston are setting the stage for future Moonwalk training by simulating lunar lighting conditions. At the Lunar South Pole, the Sun will remain no more than a few degrees above the horizon, resulting in extremely long and dark shadows. To prepare astronauts for these challenging lighting conditions, the team at the NBL has begun preliminary evaluations of lunar lighting solutions at the bottom of the 40-foot-deep pool. This testing and evaluation involved turning off all the lights in the facility, installing black curtains on the pool walls to minimize reflections, and using a powerful underwater cinematic lamp, to get the conditions just right ahead of upcoming training for astronauts.
Credit: NASA/ Lauren Maples