A full-sized model of Lockheed Martin's proposed cislunar habitat module it is developing under a NextSTEP contract with NASA on display at the company's Denver facilities. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Lockheed Martin is considering additional applications of a cislunar outpost that it is designing for potential use on future NASA human spaceflight missions, including supporting commercial lunar missions.

Bill Pratt, program manager for Lockheed Martin’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) contract with NASA, said he believes that there could be other applications for the proposed habitat once it completed its primary mission for the space agency.

“NASA has a set of ‘Proving Ground’ objectives that they want to accomplish in order to get to Mars. That’s the primary purpose of the outpost,” he said in an April 13 interview during the 32nd Space Symposium here. “Past that, though, my personal view is that the outpost would be great support for countries or other entities that want to go to the lunar surface.”

Those users, Pratt added, could include both national space agencies planning lunar missions or companies with commercial lunar ambitions. “I think it’s a great way for those entrepreneurial industries to use an asset that the government’s already paid for to support those endeavors,” he said.

Pratt said the cislunar outpost could also be expanded over time with additional modules to provide additional capabilities or support larger crews. Some of those, he suggested, could come from international or commercial partners. “Because it’s evolvable and modular over time, I think it really opens up possibilities for partnerships,” he said.

Lockheed has one of four NextSTEP contracts NASA awarded last year, along with Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing and Orbital ATK, to study designs for a habitat module that would operate in cislunar space. Pratt said Lockheed Martin started work on its one-year contract last September and recently completed a mid-term review.

Lockheed’s current work includes an overall concept trade study of the habitat module, as well as specific work on life support systems that can be upgraded for long-duration Mars missions and radiation shielding. Pratt said the company was starting to prepare for a second phase of the NextSTEP program, beginning late this year, that involves additional risk reduction studies and construction of some hardware.

The studies are designed to support internal NASA plans for the development of a habitat module that could be launched as soon as the early 2020s. NASA’s “Journey to Mars” plans for human Mars exploration calls for a series of crewed missions in what the agency calls the “Proving Ground” of cislunar space in the 2020s, culminating with a year-long mission by the end of the decade.

Lockheed’s concept sets itself apart from others by its reliance on the Orion spacecraft. In addition to using Orion to ferry astronauts to and from the habitat module, Orion’s life support and other systems would be used by the crew while on board the module to simplify its design.

“Orion is an advanced spacecraft that is already being built for the cislunar environment. It’s got all of the advanced propulsion, power and life support,” Pratt said during an April 11 tour of a Lockheed Martin facility in Denver that hosts a model of a NextSTEP habitat module. “All of those are things we want to rely on for the cislunar habitat, which makes the habitat much more affordable and less complex.”

The habitat is designed to operate in a limited mode when Orion is not docked, making use of autonomous control systems Lockheed Martin has developed for interplanetary robotic spacecraft. The habitat also incorporates elements of the spacecraft system Lockheed proposed to NASA in 2014 for the second Commercial Resupply Services space station cargo contract, which the company did not win.

That reliance on Orion is one drawback to non-NASA use of the outpost. Pratt suggested it might be possible by the late 2020s for others to use Orion spacecraft. He added that, over time, the habitat might be able to take on some of the capabilities that Orion would initially provide. “As the outpost becomes more advanced,” he said, “who knows what capabilities it will have or what it can support.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...