In a mix of the old and the new, Lockheed Martin is recycling a Space Shuttle cargo container to create a prototype deep space habitat for NASA. The full-scale experimental module to be built at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida will be used to test technologies to provide astronauts with a safe living space that can operate autonomously when there is no one on board.

Part of the Phase II contract for the space agency's Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) habitat study, the new habitat module will upgrade the concepts produced in Phase I and identify key system requirements for the Deep Space Gateway. This space station is to be placed in cislunar orbit and serve as a jumping off point for missions to explore the Moon, Mars, and the asteroids.

Space stations aren't new to NASA, which has been developing and operating orbital habitats since the Skylab missions of the 1970s, but these have all been set in low Earth orbit, where home is only a quick re-entry flight away if an emergency arises. As the US moves back to manned deep space missions where the Earth is days or weeks away, these habitats have to be much more robust, reliable, and capable of operating autonomously between visits instead of being mothballed.

According to Lockheed, the prototype will be built using one of the three Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) that was used to transport cargo aboard the Space Shuttle to the International Space Station (ISS). To keep down costs and speed up development over the next 18 months, the team will use mixed reality prototyping with virtual and augmented reality.

In addition, the prototype will help to develop common interfaces and incorporate technology from Lockheed Martin-built unmanned deep space probes like Juno and MAVEN to allow it and the Deep Space Gateway to function autonomously. The Orion crew capsule will act as the command center for the Gateway and Lockheed is building a Deep Space Avionics Integration Laboratory at Houston, Texas to demonstrate new command and control interfaces between the capsule and Gateway. The lab will also be a place where astronauts can train for different scenarios.

"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," says Bill Pratt, Lockheed Martin NextSTEP program manager. "Lockheed Martin's experience building autonomous planetary spacecraft plays a large role in making that possible."