Lockheed Martin space module

Astronauts could soon be living in a deep space RV

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Aug 20, 2018, 6:54 PM EDT (Updated)

Space RVs might sound like something the Jetsons would take on a cosmic road trip, but Lockheed Martin is going to make it a reality for astronauts venturing to Mars and beyond.

NASA gave the aerospace titan, along with Boeing, OrbitalATK, Bigelow Aerospace, Nanoracks, and Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Space Systems, a combined $65 million to prototype a deep-space habitat for its NextSTEP (Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships) program by the end of the year.

"You think of it as an RV in deep space," Lockheed Martin program manager Bill Pratt recently told the Orlando Sentinel on a tour of the proto at the Kennedy Space Center. "When you're in an RV, your table becomes your bed and things are always moving around, so you have to be really efficient with the space. That's a lot of what we are testing here."

What is so genius about this concept is that it reuses an older module which never had a chance to make it off the planet. The Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module was designed to shuttle cargo to the ISS, but it has now morphed into a sci-fi cylindrical capsule (above) that, at 22 feet long and 15 feet wide, (just barely) fits four astronauts and is about the size of a gravity-bound RV. Except the thing you drive on asphalt doesn’t have racks for scientific research, life support systems, robotic workstations, and exercise machines along with places for the astronauts to actually sleep.

The Lockheed team minimized layout errors by using augmented reality headsets to minimize errors. Think of it like movie special effects that overlay 3D designs with shading and texture to turn them into everything from spaceships to Godzilla, except that actual hardware in the unfinished module was being overlaid with simulations that were much easier to revise than something built in three dimensions.

Modifying the defunct Dontatello into a capsule that will eventually attach to the upcoming Deep Space Gateway, which will orbit the moon and act as a launchpad to Mars and deep space, also saved time and a massive amount of money that could be refocused on other design elements. Lockheed has prioritized reusability, transforming existing materials for the missions of the future.

"We want to get to the moon and to Mars as quickly as possible, and we feel like we actually have a lot of stuff that we can use to do that," Pratt said.

Astronauts will reach the Gateway on NASA’s Lockheed-engineered Orion spacecraft, which will blast off on the agency’s Space Launch System, which is supposed to be the most powerful rocket to ever exist if China doesn’t one-up us.

Orion has just had heat shields installed and is expected to go into lunar orbit on an unmanned mission by 2020, with a manned mission following in 2022. The punishing 1,000-day flight to Mars—which NASA still doesn’t believe will happen anywhere near 2024 as Elon Musk does—will test both humans and machinery to their limits.

That could be the ultimate road trip.