Spaceflight Insider

Lockheed Martin announces plans to build prototype cislunar habitat

Cislunar habitat concept

Lockheed Martin artist’s rendering of the NextSTEP habitat docked with Orion in cislunar orbit as part of a concept for the Deep Space Gateway. Orion will serve as the habitatís command deck in early missions, providing critical communications, life support, and navigation to guide long-duration missions. Image Credit: PRNewsfoto / Lockheed Martin

Although NewSpace companies may garner the lion’s share of headlines when it comes to reusing flight hardware, there are members of the industry’s old guard who are keen to show that reusability isn’t a skill held solely by the newcomers.

Lockheed Martin recently announced plans to build a prototype habitation module from a reused Shuttle-era cargo container as part of their submission for NASA’s Deep Space Gateway. Originally designed to carry cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) via the Space Shuttle’s payload bay, the Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) will find new life as a ground model of full-scale deep-space habitat.

Cislunar habitat: Cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko floats inside the repurposed Leonardo cargo module on the ISS, providing a sense of the module's internal volume.

Cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko floats inside the repurposed Leonardo cargo module on the ISS, providing a sense of the module’s internal volume. Photo Credit: NASA

Smart re-use

Lockheed Martin, selected by NASA as one of six partners in its NextSTEP-2 program to develop deep-space living spaces, announced their plan reuse the heritage hardware.

“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,” stated Lockheed Martin NextSTEP program manager, Bill Pratt, in the company’s release.

Donatello, along with fellow Italian Space Agency-built MPLMs Leonardo and Raffaello, was initially designed as a pressurized cargo container, capable of holding more than 28,000 pounds (12,748 kilograms) of supplies destined for the ISS. With nearly 1,100 cubic feet (31 cubic meters) of interior volume, it may be easy to see why an MPLM may be considered for use as a habitation module.

In fact, a similar modification to an MPLM has already been successfully undertaken. In 2011, Space Shuttle Discovery delivered a refurbished and repurposed Leonardo to the ISS on its final mission. STS-133 saw the permanent installation of the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) to the orbiting laboratory, where it acts as a pressurized storage container.

Similar… but different

Though it may seem that much of the engineering in converting Donatello into a habitation module has already been done with Leonardo, the function of each is significantly dissimilar. While the latter is attached to a larger vessel in low-Earth orbit (LEO), the former will operate largely autonomously and further from Earth.

“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,” noted Pratt.

This independent operation will require the development of an autonomous command-and-control system, something with which Lockheed Martin has significant experience. Drawing on the knowledge gained from their work on the Juno and MAVEN spacecraft – both built by Lockheed Martin – the company believes they are well-positioned to accomplish this.

“Lockheed Martin’s experience building autonomous planetary spacecraft plays a large role in making that [creating autonomous command-and-control] possible,” said Pratt.

The company will spend the next 18 months building on the data from the Phase I concept study, before working with physical, virtual, and augmented reality systems in Phase II. Combining these advanced design practiced with heritage design allows Lockheed Martin to field a cost-effective and timely solution.

“Making use of existing capabilities will be a guiding philosophy for Lockheed Martin to minimize development time and meet NASA’s affordability goals,” concluded Pratt.

Cislunar habitat concept

Early concept rendering of Lockheed Martin’s MPLM-derived deep-space habitation module in cislunar orbit, with an Orion crew vehicle docked. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin



Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

Reader Comments

It would be great if this station did eventually get built, I remain sceptical at this point judging by the way politicians have been treating NASA and its subcontractors. This does sound like repurposing and not direct reusability, probably less effective but a good sign from Lockheed Martin none the less. The question is, will they take this on as a private project with real funding once support inevitably fades, will they put their money where their mouth is and start building this regardless of political decisions? Or is it just the latest popular option like so many that came before.. At this point, beyond LEO proposals that come from established companies sound like advertising pitches that will never materialize. Time is not on their side so better make this one count or it may be one of the last such proposals from these companies that anyone takes even half way seriously.

Once again it seems we disagree, while I would admit that SpaceX have been very “forward thinking”, what they have done is at least 5 years beyond industry incumbents if not 10 or more. The simple fact is that such arguments, that what they say will never be done, evaporated with the first couple of successful drone platform landings. Being sceptical is fine, I am also not going to say that the Interplanetary Transport System is going to happen within the proposed timeframe, the point is that they have proven a willingness to stick with it no matter what and have achieved surprisingly positive results. This cannot be said of seasoned companies who have made proposals and have just leaf them dead in their tracks.

I wonder how you can be so negative and seemingly incapable of recognizing any of these achievements, as if these landings never took place. Because that would be a scam, is this what you are suggesting? If so, you may as well suggest we never landed on the moon. This blocked mentality is in my opinion one of the main reasons we sit here waiting for cheaper rockets and beyond LEO presence. If what you want is a stagnant space industry with no competition to speak of and a billion dollars played out to infrastructure maintenance and idling workforces that seem to me to be there mainly for occasional military satellite launches, then be my guest and keep your frame of mind. Personally, I choose not to be this pessimistic about the future of spaceflight.

It seems this kind of conversation has become the norm nowadays, after a quick jog to clear my mind from this discourse I’ve decided to change the above approach and if you are willing I will hear your arguments/responses and will ignore any perceived suggestions from here on out.

So, here’s me offering an olive branch by requesting your thoughts on the following:

If these NewSpace companies are wrong, are cheating taxpayers out of their cash and will never fly beyond LEO, what is the old guard plan for maintaining our presence in Lunar orbit, assuming this station is built, without making it financially unsustainable?

What I mean by the above is how will this proposed station be maintained without eating up a quarter or more of the NASA budget? Will SLS do this? If the Falcon Heavy actually works and doesn’t explode on the first and subsequent flights, what would be the grounds for rejecting a ride (even just as cargo) that costs maybe 150 million in favour of something much more expensive? Can you offer information that shows the SLS will actually have the same cost per unit weight of cargo as a Falcon Heavy? I agree that the old guard have a much better safety record but is it not true that before the substantial yearly maintenance pay-out there were a lot of accidents?

I wasn’t aware of the clipper, of course BlueOrigin also did something similar before SpaceX. The difference, as I understood it, was the re-entry and landing from LEO/GEO which is supposed to be much harder and a lot more useful. I’m not sure if the SRBs belong in the reusable category as they had to be retrieved from the ocean making extensive refurbishment a given for every attempt. I agree that there’s still a massive question mark whether the reuse will be successful, as in quick turnaround, over 10 uses per manufactured unit (Block 5). What happens to the SLS if they make it and a reusable Falcon Heavy becomes available? If SLS is shuttered then billions go down the drain and if it’s maintained regardless then billions are expended where a cheaper option exists..

What is transparent to me is that you have no wish to provide reasonable answers and to discuss this with all cards on the table. I have to consider the possibility that perhaps you don’t have such answers because there aren’t any to offer. Once your ban is lifted I would remain open to anything you have to offer in response to the concerns that were posted. I will however ask you again to do your best not to insult me as a part of a group like you clearly did in your last comment.

I imagine Bigelow should be engaging Lockheed in a collaboration in some convenient scenario. Is this prospect in play?

I hope Bigelow can launch something within the immediate future. I heard on the radio that their intentions are to launch 2 of their B330 Modules into space as test space station. They’ve been careful for long time doing their development. Mr. Bigelow said in the interview he said when they’re hoping to launch the modules that he’s always concern about his products due to lives they’re safeguarding with their life support equipment.

I like how their trying move forwards. I just hope the B330s are armored enough for all the debris in orbit.

A bit reminiscent of Skylab (outfitting a Saturn IVB rocket’s upper stage to make the first USA space station).
In the same way, the MPLM could serve as a module on a deep space station. This would save time and money with existing infrastructure.

Have a concern, though, about radiation beyond the Earth’s magnetosphere. If the MPLM was designed for LEO, how would it protect astronauts in deep space?

Welcome Back!

That was record quick hello/goodbye to Gary Church

@RaceBannon – Thank you for the reference to “Shielding Space Travelers” by Eugene N. Parker (2006 Scientific American). Excellent and important read for anyone considering manned space flight beyond Earth.

There’ve been some issues with classifying particular groups of people and I would like to request from everyone, both commenters and official writers/opinion writers to try to avoid such terms as NewSpace, OldSpace and possibly also Old Guard. These kinds of labels easily become a problem and inevitably end up representing individuals as a mass of fixed quantity. I don’t believe that the group referred to as OldGuard or OldSpace can not evolve into something different same as I don’t think what is referred to as NewSpace cannot become entrenched in the future. Better terms could for instance be fledgling space companies and established space companies. It’s a mouth full but that’s a good thing when it comes to representing these companies and their methodology. I don’t think this is as much about ideology as it is methodology so there’s no reason to feel that established companies can’t modify their processes to rise to the challenge just as there’s no reason to think that current fledgling companies will continue to push the boundaries in the future.

Perhaps there could be more options in the inflatable/flexible structure habitat –like Bigelow Aerospace’s (kudos to Bigelow!). It sure helps that large structures can be packed in much smaller spaces as they move through the atmosphere and then expand greatly on their way to deep space deployment. I am not sure I want to spend years in a tiny capsule on a deep space mission!

Rodger Raubach

I remain skeptical of these NASA-based ideas of deep space habitats which serve little purpose than exposing the resident astronauts to excessive unshielded Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR). Having a Moon base even makes more sense, since the dosage rate is roughly only 50 % on the planetary surface. I’m also negative about a Mars satellite, since Mars has no magnetic field, and no mechanism exists for shielding; these also cause long term microgravity problems. I cannot see the real purpose of this proposal. Can anyone else convince me that this is a worthwhile undertaking?

Good LM proposal, expansion of fuel supplies and service supplies would make it easier for missiles missions.

Come on! Re-using old designs is nothing new for OldSpace! NewSpace is about re-using actual physical hardware!

You’re aware a lot of what SpaceX uses is based off old designs. Dragon = Gemini. The Pica-X stuff they use in their heat shields is actually Pica, which comes from NASA, they just slapped an “X” in the name. Others.

So, “Come on!” yourself. If you’re going to make a snarky comment you kinda need to own all of it, the good and the bad. If you can’t do that? Then you should show some respect for those who came before you who provided “New” space with a lot of what they’re using and just keep quiet. Both “sides” are using what came before – but you’re only ragging on one of them – that’s kinda sad.

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