The next decade could play host to some exciting developments in space exploration. Sotirios Karamitsos writes about NASA’s plans to send astronauts to lunar space stations and beyond
For the past year, NASA has been considering the possibility of launching a deep-space outpost beyond the Moon. Now, following the end of the United States presidential election, the agency looks likely to reveal details about its plans for manned missions beyond low-Earth orbit.
Under President Barack Obama’s instructions, NASA has been working on the long-term goal of sending a manned mission to an asteroid. According to John Logsdon, space policy expert and Professor Emeritus at George Washington University, the space agency had been in contact with the Obama administration before the election about the details of the expedition. It did not, however, reveal any specifics in case Mitt Romney was elected, as his policies included a restructuring and reassessment of NASA’s priorities.
The ‘foundational elements’ of the mission, the Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket, and Orion, a multi-purpose crew capsule, are currently under development and are scheduled to take off in 2021. This expedition, named Exploration Mission 2, will be manned, as opposed to Exploration Flight Test 1, meant as a trial of the capabilities of the equipment and planned for 2017. Exploration Mission 2’s goal is not to reach an asteroid, but to set up an outpost at the second Earth- Moon liberation point (EML-2). There, the gravitational forces between the Earth and the Moon are balanced such that there is no net attraction to either body: in theory, the outpost could stay there indefinitely.
At about a million kilometres from the far side of the Moon, a station at EML-2 will mark the farthest point from Earth that humans have travelled to. Exploration Mission 2 will also be the first manned mission to the Moon since Apollo 17’s visit in 1972. NASA’s Deputy Administrator, Lori Garver, states that Congress has been apprised of the scope of the mission, and underlines that the presence of a manned station at EML-2 is a stepping-stone towards missions to various destinations beyond lunar space. These destinations could include asteroids by 2025 and even the moons of Mars or Mars itself by the 2030s.
According to Logsdon, the expedition to launch an EML-2 station does not pose a significant strain on NASA’s budget, especially in light of the benefits to be gained by its establishment. Apart from being a gateway to a host of destinations, the station would enable advances in numerous areas, ranging from investigations in radiation shielding outside the Van Allen belt, to the assembly and maintenance of telescopes and satellites. Garver appears enthusiastic, stating that NASA is “going back to the moon, attempting a first-ever mission to send humans to an asteroid and actively developing a plan to take Americans to Mars”.
IMAGE: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre, Flickr