When NASA lays out a plan for human spaceflight, it usually revolves around a presidential mandate that outlines the course of the agency within a president’s time in office. It’s not really the best arrangement, but if the president happens to stick around for two terms, then it hopefully provides a nice, eight-year cushion to keep the course steady for NASA. When President Obama unveiled his plan for the space agency, it predictably wiped the slate clean (for the most part) of President Bush’s underfunded plan, while simultaneously laying out an extremely long-term plan that would in all likelihood be changed as soon as he leaves office. Now it looks like NASA is no longer content to be left in the lurch with the plans of politicians and has put forth its own plan to the president for the future of human spaceflight. It’s a bold mission to build a space station on the far side of the moon, but can it get past the White House?
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the new plan calls for using parts of the current International Space Station to be re-purposed and moved to the L2 Earth-Moon Lagrange Point, where it would be used as a small outpost to increase training effectiveness for deep-space missions while providing a support base for future Mars and Lunar missions. In addition to being a stepping stone for deep-space exploration, the L2 base would also allow for robotic sample-return missions on the moon to be studied aboard the space station by human investigators. The L2 point is over 277,000 miles from Earth, so this would not only make the station the most distant that man has ever built, but it would put humans further away from Earth than at any point during the Apollo missions. That task will be monumental when it comes to the safety of the astronauts, who won’t have the relatively quick and easy trip home that they would from the ISS’s current orbit, but the possible benefits to future deep-space exploration would be immense.
There are a couple of key benefits to the L2 base plan that could sway the White House’s approval. Since the base uses parts of the ISS, not only would it look to be a cost-efficient re-purposing of the most expensive science outpost ever created, but it would also provide a definite end date to ISS operations, something that would be necessary before any other big-money science project dominates NASA’s time. One of the parts being used from the ISS would be a Russian module, so that would provide a big incentive for international partnership as well.
The L2 base would also provide a purpose for the current plans for the SLS and Orion modules. While the SLS and Orion were approved to help further NASA’s deep-space capabilities, the various early iterations of the SLS don’t really have a purposeful destination, and the size of the Orion module only makes it suitable only for relatively short trips. An L2 base would need both the SLS and the Orion to make it work, and might provide a valuable roadblock to any future president’s plan to stop their development.
It is unclear as whether or not this proposal was specifically timed by NASA to coincide with the upcoming election, but it may or may not prove to be a smart move on their part. With the Romney campaign looking fairly soft on science, they may be thinking that President Obama will jump at the chance to further separate himself from his opponent, but the proposal would require a funding increase for NASA, although modest, which could be a big no-no in the current jobs-and-economy-focused election. Time will tell if the proposal’s timing will pay off.
All in all, it is a very intriguing plan to further mankind’s reach within the solar system, and hopefully this marks the beginning of NASA being more proactive in its plans for human spaceflight. While it’s nice to have a mission put forward by a White House administration in order to keep it from being canned for at least four years, it’s even nicer to have actual scientists and engineers putting forward projects without political oversight. NASA’s unmanned robotic programs seem to do just fine without the White House’s involvement.