The Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) used to sit in the space shuttle payload bay filled with cargo bound for the International Space Station. Now, Lockheed Martin is going to refurbish one to prototype a deep space habitat for NASA. Designed around the most precious cargo of all, humans.

“Something as simple as calling your family is completely different when you are outside of low Earth orbit,” says Bill Pratt, Lockheed Martin NextSTEP manager. “While building this habitat, we have to operate in a different mindset that’s more akin to long trips to Mars to ensure we keep them safe, healthy and productive.”

The folks at Lockheed Martin also plan to use the latest in mixed reality (virtual and augmented) during the next part of the design phase. This can help engineers figure out what design works the best. But more importantly, it can also highlight any potential issues that could easily be fixed before the prototype is built. Better to find a serious issue with a VR headset on then when everyone’s looking at a physical prototype.

Lockheed Martin habitat concept

A concept of Lockheed Martin’s habitat prototype.

A module that was originally designed to go no further than the ISS will be tinkered with and pushed to its limits to explore the best way to send people into deep space. Pratt also shines a light on the obvious cost savings. “Making use of existing capabilities will be a guiding philosophy for Lockheed Martin to minimize development time and meet NASA’s affordability goals.”

The work on this space shuttle module represents the second phase (three phases total) of the NextSTEP program for Lockheed Martin. Over the next 18 months, engineers will continue to refine the company’s concept for a deep space habitat with the help of mixed reality. A ground test of this prototype is scheduled for sometime in 2018.

One of the key attributes of this prototype described in a recent presentation is it “uses Orion command and control capability to leverage NASA investment.” The end goal of this module is to build and test a “high-fidelity prototype.” Lockheed Martin and NASA want to see how this habitat and Orion integrate with one another.

Lockheed Martin isn’t the only company NASA is looking at to help crack the deep space travel problem. Five companies are working on prototypes right now. The other four are Bigelow Aerospace, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Orbital ATK, and Boeing. Each company plans to conduct tests of their prototypes in 2018.

Don’t expect any of these prototypes to get past the Moon anytime soon. NASA’s presentation also highlights the current thinking of the timetable for deep space exploration. In the 2020s, NASA and its partners plan to conduct missions in cislunar space. That’s all the space in between Earth and the moon. It’ll be the 2030s before we start seeing manned missions to Mars.

That timetable could change. NASA could always get a huge bump in funding. I know, I know. That’s not going to happen anytime soon. Or, the private sector could push us to Mars faster. SpaceX proved reuseable rockets can happen. Now, Mars’ surface? So far, that’s a place only NASA can get to with a payload intact.

Head on over to the NASA presentation to read more about the prototypes other companies are putting together.

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