By David S. F. Portree
A recent Space.com story on post-election Obama Administration plans for NASA has generated a great deal of excitement. Other news outlets – for example, the Russian news service RIA Novosti and ABC in the U.S. – have picked it up and spread it widely. The story, which appeared on the Space.com website yesterday (7 October), is titled “NASA May Unveil New Manned Moon Missions Soon.”
Unfortunately, the article is substantially incorrect.
Interestingly, hidden behind the misleading headline and scattered among the out-of-context quotes about piloted voyages to the moon, an asteroid, and Mars, one can find nuggets of truth that reveal the real plan. If one reads carefully the quotes attributed to veteran space policy professor John Logsdon, one discovers that the plan calls not for manned missions to the moon, an asteroid, and Mars, but rather for construction of an outpost at Earth-moon L2, a quasi-stable place in empty space located about 65,000 kilometers beyond the moon. Because of the gravitational tug of the Sun, the outpost would move in an intricate path – a “halo orbit” – around the Earth-moon L2 point.
An Earth-moon L2 outpost would provide NASA astronauts and engineers with experience in deep space operations that would help to ensure the success of eventual voyages beyond the Earth-moon system. It could serve as a repair base for giant telescopes at the Earth-moon and Earth-Sun L points and, by virtue of its close proximity to the moon, as a base for real-time astronaut teleoperation of robot geologists on the lunar surface.
Landing and remotely driving robots would be cheaper and less risky than landing astronauts. Such robots could operate for years, much like our highly successful rovers on Mars. Teleoperated robots might eventually prepare a campsite for the first humans to land on the moon since Apollo 17 in December 1972. Just as likely, though, teleoperations might make a human return to the moon’s surface unnecessary.
The journey to Earth-moon L2 would not lack drama. Astronauts would reach the outpost in an Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a spacecraft already well along in its development. Flying past the moon on their way to Earth-moon L2, they would view its battered landscapes close-up. Once at the outpost, astronauts would see our homeworld and its natural satellite as bright baubles shining together against the blackness of space. They would live and work farther from home than any humans in history.