Astronauts could stay at this space 'motel' on the way to Mars

A new prototype habitat could host four space fliers for up to 60 days.
by Denise Chow /
Image: Space Lunar Habitat
Lockheed Martin's habitat is designed to form one module of NASA's proposed Deep Space Gateway, a mini space station that would orbit the moon.Courtesy Lockheed Martin
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NASA’s first crewed mission to Mars may still be years away, but already we’re getting a glimpse of the sort of habitat that astronauts could use as a staging point for a multimonth voyage to the red planet, an asteroid or another deep-space destination.

Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin unveiled an early prototype of its deep-space habitat last week at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The cylindrical module — a reworked cargo container from the space shuttle era — is about 22 feet long and 16.5 feet wide. That’s much bigger than the Russian Soyuz capsules that take astronauts to and from the International Space Station but tiny compared to the space station itself, which is made up of 16 pressurized modules that collectively cover an area bigger than a football field.

Given the habitat's size, life in space will most likely be a bit cramped for the four astronauts who could live there for up to 60 days before shipping out to deep space.

“It’s a lot like being in an RV, where you’re constantly reconfiguring the space,” said Bill Pratt, who manages the deep-space habitat program at Lockheed Martin. “The couch and the table become your bed, and you’re constantly moving and shuffling things around.”

In addition to sleeping quarters, the habitat will have a toilet, exercise equipment, storage space, an area for science experiments and a galley.

Image: Space Lunar Habitat
A conceptual layout of the interior of Lockheed Martin's deep space habitat. The prototype is approximately 22 feet long and 16.5 feet wide.Courtesy Lockheed Martin

The habitat is designed to form one module of NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway, a miniature space station that would orbit the moon and serve as a way station for lunar missions or journeys deeper into the cosmos.

Image: Space Lunar Habitat
NASA's proposed Deep Space Gateway is imagined as a moon-orbiting space station that would act as a stepping stone for missions to Mars.Courtesy Lockheed Martin

Lockheed’s prototype is the refurbished Donatello cargo container that was originally designed to fit inside the space shuttle’s cargo bay and ferry supplies to and from the ISS. Donatello never flew in space, but its two sister modules made several trips aboard the shuttle. One, dubbed Leonardo, is now a permanent “space closet” attached to the space station.

Lockheed is one of six companies awarded a combined $65-million contract from NASA to design a deep-space habitat as part of the agency’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, which aims to foster commercial developments for space exploration.

Boeing, Orbital ATK, Bigelow Aerospace, Sierra Nevada Corporation's Space Systems and NanoRacks are all working on their own habitats.

Lockheed plans to complete work on its prototype module in November. Early next year, NASA will test and evaluate the various submitted designs.

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