WASHINGTON — Cis-lunar space — the region between the Earth and the Moon — might be the best proving ground for technologies required to reach asteroids and other  distant destinations NASA has proposed for human  missions beyond low Earth orbit, government and academic space professionals said at an international space exploration conference here.

“We can do technology development today in cis-lunar space that can make [missions to Mars and near-Earth asteroids] achievable in the future, if we work together,” said John Karas, vice president and general manager of human spaceflight for Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Karas’ team is building the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for NASA. Orion is the cornerstone of NASA’s proposed deep-space transportation system and is being built to ride to space atop the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket. The first version of this rocket will be able to carry 70 metric tons to low Earth orbit and is slated to send an empty Orion around the Moon in 2017 and then repeat the feat in 2021 with a crew.

To date, those are the only definite missions for Orion, a vehicle at the center of NASA’s plans to visit an asteroid by the middle of the next decade and fly to Mars by 2030. Orion can support an astronaut crew only for about 20 days, Karas said. Longer missions will require additional hardware.

A NASA official suggested such hardware could be provided by the agency’s international partners.

“We have deep space [habitats], we have landers, where appropriate, transfer vehicles of some form or another, and as we go through the architectural trade studies with our international partners and internally … that’s where we see a lot of open trade space from international partners,” said Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development.

NASA’s heavy-lift rocket could then be used to launch such hardware, and the crews that will eventually use it, to lunar orbit for testing, said an executive with Houston-based Boeing Space Exploration, which is developing the Space Launch System’s (SLS) liquid rocket stages.

“I think that we can probably establish a cis-lunar capability pretty quickly after the capability of the SLS and Orion coming on line,” said Michael Raftery, Boeing’s director of international space station utilization and exploration.

Karas, Dumbacher and Raftery spoke during panel discussions the week of May 21 at the Global Space Exploration Conference here. The three-day meeting was jointly organized by the Reston, Va.-based American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the International Astronautical Federation, which is headquartered in Paris.

The event drew high-level attendees — including several space agency heads — from all the major international space station (ISS) partner nations. With the station’s on-orbit assembly finally finished, Russia — NASA’s senior partner in the venture — now envisions using ISS to test technology needed to venture beyond the orbital outpost.

“As an example, Roscosmos made a decision to develop [a] scientific power module for the Russian segment” of ISS, Alexander Derechin, deputy general designer at Russia’s lead space station contractor, RSC Energia, said during a panel discussion. “We consider this module as a step to [having] a similar module on a cis-lunar orbit.”

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, plans to integrate the scientific power module with the Multipurpose Laboratory Module, an Energia-built space station addition slated to launch in 2013 atop a Russian Proton rocket.

At the conference, the Earth-Moon Lagrange point 2, a gravitationally stable spot about 60,000 kilometers from the surface of the Moon’s far side, was discussed as a possible staging area for future excursions to the lunar surface. These excursions could be carried out by astronauts, or by robotic probes operated by crews living aboard a habitat at the Lagrange point.

“You would have astronauts up there, and they could drive things around on the surface of the Moon,” said Stephen Mackwell, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. “There are many things we can do on the Moon telerobotically.”

Doug Cooke, a consultant who until last year was NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems, also likes the idea of putting a small orbital outpost in cis-lunar space.

“Putting something at Earth-Moon [Lagrange point 2] is pretty interesting because you could explore the back side of the Moon, which we haven’t ever really done,” he said. “And it does provide a place to actually maybe accomplish something with the capabilities that are being developed right now,” namely Orion and the Space Launch System.

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said  the Moon is perhaps the only destination for human exploration beyond Earth orbit that NASA could count on international assistance to reach.

“If this is to be a cooperative enterprise, we need to go first to places that our partners are capable of going,” Griffin said during the conference. “So even if the United States were to push directly for a mission to an asteroid or a mission to Mars, this is, leaving aside funding, [still] not a mission that our international partners are quite ready to take on.”

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.