They call it the Outpost, a high-tech outer-space shack that could house four astronauts for up to 60 days in the wild-west-like frontier of space known as the "proving ground".

The habitat would be parked somewhere above the moon where there would be no relatively quick escape back to Earth, as there is on the International Space Station. Rather the astronauts would have to figure out how to survive in deep space on their own - or "stay and fight", said Bill Pratt, the programme manager for Lockheed Martin said.

Lockheed, along with several other major contractors, are developing habitats under partnerships with Nasa that would help the agency push further into the cosmos.

Lockheed's proposal, the Outpost, could launch along with the Orion crew capsule it is developing for the agency. The two systems would mate together, giving the crew of four essentially two rooms of space. The idea is to help develop the "next steps in the proving ground on the way to Mars", Pratt said.


Not that the Outpost could go to Mars. Orion can only sustain four astronauts for 21 days on its own. But the idea is to practise launching and staying in deep space in preparation for a Mars journey.

"The moon is an ideal place to practise," Pratt said at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, where Lockheed is showing off the Outpost. "It's far enough away that you can't just push a button and come home in an emergency. You have to be more self-sufficient and able to troubleshoot problems without having to rely on the ground control."

But much of the plan in is still in the conceptual stages, existing only in models and an artists' conceptual rendering that can't be missed near the restroom at the convention hall here. The programme doesn't have the significant funding it would need to move forward. A specific destination for the Outpost hasn't yet been decided.

And the Space Launch System rocket that would launch Orion, and many of the parts of the Outpost, isn't slated to fly its first test unmanned flight until 2018. The first manned mission of the SLS and Orion won't be until 2021 at the earliest and could possibly be delayed until 2023.

Lockheed's Outpost is just one of the options Nasa is considering under what it calls its NextSTEP programme. Orbital ATK, Boeing, and Bigelow Aerospace also are part of the public-private partnership.

Bigelow's BEAM habitat was recently flown to the space station, where it should soon be attached and inflated. As part of the programme, Nasa is also working with industry to develop advancements in propulsion and small satellites.

Unlike Bigelow's collapsible habitat, which is made of a Kevlar-like material that is inflated with air, Lockheed's Outpost is a fixed metal structure that looks like a barrel. It would have a propulsion module that would allow it to manoeuvre in space. In Lockheed's plan, Orion would ferry the astronauts to the habitat. The Outpost would have sleeping bags that would possibly hang from bungy cords. Or the crew could also sleep in Orion, which has a galley and advanced life support system.

It also could be used as a shelter to protect astronauts in the case of high radiation events.

- Bloomberg