Last summer, NASA selected six companies to develop prototypes and concepts for deep space habitats for future crews flying missions on Orion. Lockheed Martin was one of them, and this week the company released some details on plans for their full-scale prototype, which they hope to complete over the next 18 months.
Lockheed is developing the prototype under a Phase II contract with NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, as part of the space agency’s plans to build a crew tended spaceport in lunar orbit within the first few SLS / Orion missions known as the “Deep Space Gateway”.
“The deep space gateway would have a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, an airlock, and serviced by logistics modules to enable research,” says NASA. “The propulsion system on the gateway mainly uses high power electric propulsion for station keeping and the ability to transfer among a family of orbits in the lunar vicinity. The three primary elements of the gateway, the power and propulsion bus and habitat module, and a small logistics module(s), would take advantage of the cargo capacity of SLS and crewed deep space capability of Orion. An airlock can further augment the capabilities of the gateway and can fly on a subsequent exploration mission. Building the deep space gateway will allow engineers to develop new skills and test new technologies that have evolved since the assembly of the ISS.”
“It is easy to take things for granted when you are living at home, but the recently selected astronauts will face unique challenges,” said Bill Pratt, Lockheed Martin NextSTEP program manager. “Something as simple as calling your family is completely different when you are outside of low Earth orbit,” he added.
“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.”
Such an outpost will give astronauts opportunity to build and begin testing the systems needed for the very challenging missions to Mars that NASA has its eyes set on in the coming decades. It offers a true deep space environment to gain experience and land on the moon’s surface for robotic missions; but with the ability to return to Earth if needed in days – rather than weeks or months on missions further into space in the years following.
Lockheed’s vision takes the old Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), once used in the payload bay of the space shuttles to transfer cargo to the ISS, and refurbishes it to prototype their deep space habitat in the Space Station Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“We are excited to work with NASA to repurpose a historic piece of flight hardware, originally designed for low Earth orbit exploration, to play a role in humanity’s push into deep space,” said Pratt. “Making use of existing capabilities will be a guiding philosophy for Lockheed Martin to minimize development time and meet NASA’s affordability goals.”
Lockheed says they will rely heavily on mixed reality prototyping using virtual and augmented reality, to reduce cost and schedule, and identify and solve problems early in the design phase.
The company will build a next-generation deep space avionics integration lab near Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas too, to demonstrate command and control between the Deep Space Gateway and Orion.
“The lab will help reduce risk associated with critical data interfaces between Deep Space Gateway elements and provide an environment for astronauts to train for various mission scenarios,” says Lockheed.
“Because the Deep Space Gateway would be uninhabited for several months at a time, it has to be rugged, reliable and have the robotic capabilities to operate autonomously. Essentially it is a robotic spacecraft that is well-suited for humans when Orion is present,” said Pratt.
Orion will actually serve as the command deck for the gateway early on says Lockheed, “allowing for a safe and practical approach for the incremental build-up of deep space exploration capabilities.” And when no crew is onboard, it will utilize capabilities common to other Lockheed-built spacecraft like Juno and MAVEN.
The other 5 companies selected for prototypes are:
- Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, Nevada
- Boeing of Pasadena, Texas
- Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia
- Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems of Louisville, Colorado
- NanoRacks of Webster, Texas
“I envision different partners, both international and commercial, contributing to the gateway and using it in a variety of ways with a system that can move to different orbits to enable a variety of missions,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The gateway could move to support robotic or partner missions to the surface of the moon, or to a high lunar orbit to support missions departing from the gateway to other destinations in the solar system.”
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