Lockheed Martin announced it will refurbish a NASA space shuttle and turn it into a deep space habitat. The aerospace company will repurpose the Donatello multi-purpose logistics module (MLPM).

The corporation will take the MLPM, which was initially designed to serve as a supply conveyor for the International Space Station, and turn it into a habitat to train astronauts who would one day work beyond Earth’s orbit in deep space.

The Donatello module in the future. Image Credit: collectSPACE
The Donatello module in the future. Image Credit: collectSPACE

NASA awarded the contract to Lockheed Martin under a public-private partnership. The company named the project the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) habitat study.

Lockheed Martin will turn the Donatello module into deep space habitat

Lockheed Martin will closely work with NASA to identify key requirements for the Deep Space Gateway. They will build a full-scale habitat prototype in the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, as well as a “next-generation deep space avionics integration lab.”

“It is easy to take things for granted when you are living at home, but the recently selected astronauts will face unique challenges,” Bill Pratt, Lockheed Martin NextSTEP program manager, said in a company statement. “Something as simple as calling your family is completely different when you are outside of low Earth orbit.”

Pratt noted that while they build the habitat, they must operate in a different mindset that’s more akin to long trips to Mars, to ensure the astronauts’ safety, health and productivity.

A full-scale prototype of the habitat will be built in the Donatello. The company also said in its press release that they’ll rely heavily on mixed reality prototyping by using virtual and augmented reality. Through that approach, the company expects to identify and solve issues that arise in the design phase, and they can reduce cost and schedule.

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

Lockheed Martin will also build a lab for communications between DSG and Orion

The Donatello was one of the three MPLMS that was designed to transfer cargo to the ISS, along with the Leonardo and the Raffaello modules. Leonardo and Raffaello flew on 12 shuttle missions between 2001 and 2011, according to NBC News.

Along with Lockheed Martin, NASA selected five other companies to develop ground prototypes and ideas for deep space habitats, including Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation, NanoRacks, Bigelow Aerospace, and Boeing.

The Donatello module at the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Image Credit: TheOrbital.Space
The Donatello module at the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Image Credit: TheOrbital.Space

Lockheed Martin said the prototype habitat would be built over the course of the next 18 months. The habitat is planned to be part of the Deep Space Gateway, a spaceport in lunar orbit currently under development by NASA.

The company said the Deep Space Gateway will rely on several of Orion’s advanced capabilities while astronauts are at the station, and will utilize capacities known by Lockheed Martin while the location is unoccupied. The aerospace company will also build a lab in Houston to “demonstrate command and control” between Orion and the Deep Space Gateway.

“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,” said Pratt. “Essentially it is a robotic spacecraft that is well-suited for humans when Orion is present.”

Source: Lockheed Martin