Lockheed Designs a Full-Scale Deep Space Habitat Prototype


Lockheed Martin, a global aerospace company in the private sector, is working on converting a pressurized multi-purpose logistics module (MPLM) to house humans.

There were three MPLM’s developed for transport to the ISS. Two of the three modules made several trips from 2001 to 2011, which proved their reliability.

The third MPLM, Donatello, is the one Lockheed will be converting. It was never flown and is expected to be ready in the next 18 months. Habitats, like the ISS, are intended to be permanent settlements for humans in space. Currently, the only ones we have developed have been within Earth’s orbit. A deep space habitat will be different because it will be outside the orbit. This changes practically everything about it.

The Purpose of Deep Space

The real reason for any habitat outside the Earth’s orbit is to prepare for missions to other planets, which is the primary goal of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnership (NextSTEP) program. Moving towards a goal to place humans on Mars means that astronauts have to learn how to come with a whole host of issues. Everything from the physical aspects of being weightless to just calling home changes once you get that far away. Not to mention being able to plan for and anticipate emergency procedures and adopt new, more helpful spacesuits.

By working with Lockheed Martin, NASA is using the funding of the government and combining it with the creativity and cost savings inspired by the free market. Lockheed isn’t the only company working on a deep space habitat. Five other companies are also working on a prototype, including NanoRacks, Boeing, Orbital ATK, Bigelow Aerospace, and Sierra Nevada Corporation.

From the Moon to Mars

Making headway into space is a big issue. Humans aren’t exactly well-equipped to deal with it, and we’ve discovered some strange side effects. Everything from air quality to space radiation to contact with family and friends has to be taken into account. Deep space habitats, like this, can provide “jumping points” as you might find in a video game. Blast off to the ISS, move to the next habitat, then on to the Moon, then on to a second habitat, then on to Mars.

They can provide refueling stations and a chance to make repairs, as well as give us a lifeline into the void. But to do that, they have to be able to handle their stuff. That means any space craft, but especially those designed for deep space missions, have to undergo rigorous testing.

The project is relatively new, so not all the kinks have been worked out yet. Thanks to previous missions, some aspects are well recognized. The ability for the spacecraft to remain unmanned, for example, or to avoid the presence of Earth particles and microbes are both to be considered. NASA is aware that introducing foreign bodies to unknown environments like the Martian atmosphere could have unforeseen consequences. As such, space craft traveling beyond Earth’s orbit have to undergo rigorous cleaning tests and are often built in clean rooms. Even microscopic contaminants could cause problems with the atmosphere, and could also damage the equipment.

Why Not Continue the ISS?

One of the biggest differences between the ISS as it is now and the new prototype is how long it will be left unmanned. The ISS has a revolving crew from all over the world. The deep space program, however, will spend much of its time unmanned. Crews are expected to occupy it for shorter periods of 3 to 6 months at a time, with significant gaps. That means that it will have to function autonomously for extended periods, making it a different monster from the ISS.

The prototype is expected to be done quickly and will act as a kind of sounding board for the finished product. NASA hopes to begin construction of the Deep Space Gateway in 2020. With a total of 6 different companies working on it, the finished plan should be able to deal with all the eventualities. To accomplish this feat in such a short amount of time, the physical prototype will be helped along with augmented reality. This will also allow adjustments to be made faster and more cheaply as new information is discovered.

The NextSTEP program isn’t just a fun endeavor. It’s the process of mankind becoming a multi-planet race, a change which may overshadow any technological advances that have come before.



Written By: Megan Ray Nichols – Science Writer  www.schooledbyscience.com/about/  Contact: nicholsrmegan@gmail.com

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