NASA and Lockheed Martin are currently working on the next space station, known as the Deep Space Gateway, and it all starts with a recycled cargo container.

The next major step for humanity heading into space may begin with fairly humble beginnings, namely a recycled cargo container named Donatello.

For several years now, NASA has been working toward the creation of a new space station called the “Deep Space Gateway,” which would be placed in a lunar orbit. The station would be a bridgehead to building a true lunar base, and it would act as the last stop in Earth’s neighborhood before heading to Mars.

The plan is to build up the Deep Space Gateway over time. It would feature a modular design, with new components being added as needed. It would all begin with a single cargo container, potentially 21 feet long and 15 feet in diameter, consisting of living quarters for astronauts, workstations, exercise areas, storage for things like food and water, toiletries, and more.

Over time, additional components like a fuel depot for craft heading to Mars would be added. With weight being a huge factor for any craft leaving Earth, the ability to send supplies up ahead of time and having the Mars-bound craft rendezvous and collect them in space is essential for any travel beyond the moon.

The Next Space Station May Start With a Recycled Cargo ContainerThe first piece of the newly proposed station will begin with a cylinder based on a cargo container originally built by the Italian space agency in the 1990s. The Italians created three of these containers, each designed to be sent into space containing materials and experiments for the International Space Station. The first two cylinders – named Leonardo and Raffaello – made it into space, but the third, Donatello, never left the ground. It eventually made its way to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 2001, where it remained until recently.

To help build the Deep Space Gateway, NASA is using several third-party contractors, including Lockheed Martin. The Colorado-based aeronautical company has worked with NASA for decades now. Along with the new space station, Lockheed Martin is also working with the space agency on several other projects, including NASA’s next space vehicle designed for long-term human use, the Orion spacecraft.

Lockheed Martin is currently working to retrofit the Donatello container, a process it believes will take between 18 months and two years. The goal is to use Donatello as a prototype, which it will then send to NASA once complete. From that model, NASA will construct a new module with similar dimensions (but modern materials), which it plans to send into lunar orbit at some point in the 2020s.

Before NASA can do that, however, it needs to complete work on the Orion spacecraft. The next generation of NASA’s crewed vehicles was initially set to have its first uncrewed test flight this year, but delays have pushed the timetable back. The current goal is to have Orion in use and sending astronauts into space by 2023 or 2024, although NASA is hoping to push that up a bit and send people up as early as 2021.

In the meantime, work will continue on the Deep Space Gateway. If necessary, if NASA can’t meet its schedule for the Orion, it could always turn to private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing, all of which are moving ahead with their own spacecraft.

There is, of course, still the outstanding question of how much this all will cost, something no one seems to be entirely sure about. Until the prototype is complete, NASA can’t begin to estimate the costs.

Lockheed Martin is one of six companies NASA is contracting with to build habitats for different aspects of space exploration. Of the six projects, the Deep Space Gateway may be one of the most modest, but also one of the most vital. Having a base in lunar orbit will not only help to create more permanent structures on the moon, it will be a key part of the plan to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. The Deep Space Gateway will also be the embarkation point for other planned crewed missions to the asteroid belt, and one day to the moons of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.

And it all hinges on a recycled cargo container.