Orbiting outpost proposed for far side of the Moon

Artist’s conception of the proposed orbiting outpost near the Moon. Astronauts on board could help direct robotic missions on the lunar surface. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The prospect of when, or even if, NASA astronauts will return to the Moon has been a subject of much debate in recent years. Some experts see it as a necessary stepping stone before future Mars missions. Others see it as a case of “been there, done that.”

Under the direction of President Barack Obama, current plans call for the continued development of the new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew capsule, with the first unmanned test launch by 2017. Later, a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 has been proposed, before the first astronauts are sent to Mars by the mid-2030s.

So what about the Moon? There is talk now of a new mission, but with a twist: sending astronauts back to the vicinity of the Moon, but not landing. The idea is to establish an orbiting outpost beyond the far side of the Moon, at the L2 point, where the gravitational pull of the Earth and Moon balance out.

According to Space.com, these plans may be announced soon and NASA reportedly wanted to wait until after the presidential election before doing so. With the re-election of President Barack Obama, the current proposal could now be carried forward.

“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. They’ve been holding off announcing that until after the election,” says space policy expert John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University.

According to NASA deputy chief Lori Garver, from a conference last September, “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.”

He adds, “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.”

This article was first published on Examiner.com.