SEATTLE — NASA is serious about sending astronauts back to the Moon’s neighborhood and will likely unveil its ambitious plans soon now that U.S. President Barack Obama has been re-elected, according to space policy expert John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University.
The U.S. space agency has apparently been thinking about setting up a manned outpost beyond the Moon’s far side, both to establish a human presence in deep space and to build momentum toward a planned visit to an asteroid in 2025.
The new plans have probably already been cleared with the Obama administration but have been kept under wraps in case Republican candidate Mitt Romney won the Nov. 6 presidential election, Logsdon said.
“NASA has been evolving its thinking, and its latest charts have inserted a new element of cislunar/lunar gateway/Earth-Moon L2 sort of stuff into the plan,” Logsdon said in an interview. The Earth-Moon L2 is a so-called libration point where the two bodies’ gravitational pulls roughly balance out, allowing spacecraft to essentially park there.
“They’ve been holding off announcing that until after the election,” Logsdon added, noting that Romney had pledged to reassess and possibly revise NASA’s missions and direction.
In 2010, Obama directed NASA to work toward sending astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, then on to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s. To reach such deep-space destinations, the agency is developing the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.
But astronauts likely will not head straight to an asteroid when SLS and a crew-carrying Orion are ready to fly together in 2021. In the last year, word has begun leaking out that NASA wants to explore Earth-Moon L2, a point in space that lies beyond the Moon’s far side, as a precursor.
Informed speculation currently points toward parking a spacecraft at the Earth-Moon L2 gateway, so NASA — and perhaps international partners — can learn more about supporting humans in deep space. Astronauts stationed there could also aid in lunar exploration — by teleoperating rovers on the Moon’s surface, for example.
NASA officials think they can pull off such manned missions without busting their budget, which stands at $17.7 billion in the president’s 2013 request.
“They’re not talking about plans that imply significant budget increases,” Logsdon said. “It gives a more focused use for SLS and Orion before an asteroid mission.”
Exploration of Earth-Moon L2 could get started as early as 2021 with the first manned flight of SLS and Orion, which NASA calls Exploration Mission 2. (Exploration Mission 1 is the initial, unmanned test launch of SLS, slated for late 2017.)
“I’m not privy to the specifics of this, but one could conceive of the second SLS mission being the start of activity in cislunar space, rather than just being a lunar orbit mission,” Logsdon said.
Senior NASA officials have dropped hints recently that a big announcement may indeed be in the offing.
“We just recently delivered a comprehensive report to Congress outlining our destinations which makes clear that SLS will go way beyond low Earth orbit to explore the expansive space around the Earth-Moon system, near-Earth asteroids, the Moon and ultimately Mars,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said at a conference in September.
“Let me say that again: We’re 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,” Garver added.