NASA had a big win with the Mars Curiosity rover, putting space exploration back in the minds of the general public in a way it hadn’t been in a long time. And while Curiosity continues to send back amazing images and data from the Red Planet, the American space agency may have something even bigger up their sleeve. Experts on NASA are claiming that the organization will soon be announcing further manned missions to the moon.
As reported by Space.com, these missions would be part of a multi-stage plan to further advance the exploration of our solar system. Space policy expert John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University, told Space.com that these plans have been in the works for a while, and may have already been approved by the Obama administration, but NASA was holding off until after the election to make the official announcement, since they weren’t sure which presidential candidate they’d be working with for the next four years. Logsdon explains: “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.”
“L2” refers to the Earth-moon “libration point” where the Earth’s gravity and that of the moon effectively cancel each other out. This would be an ideal place to set up a space station or an operations-hub craft, because you could effectively “park” it there. This station could then be used as a base for further lunar exploration, or as a launching point for missions deeper into our solar system. Working on such a station would make sense, because NASA plans currently call for a trip to a near-Earth asteroid in 2025, and to Mars in the mid 2030s.
NASA hinted at these ambitious plans in September, but the rumored upcoming announcement could lay out an official timetable for further manned moon missions. Here’s what NASA deputy chief Lori Garver had to say at the time:
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.
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.
Those familiar with NASA will of course realize that we don’t currently have a spacecraft capable of undertaking these missions just yet. The Shuttle program has been retired, and even if it wasn’t those vehicles were not designed for extended missions beyond Earth’s orbit. To solve this problem, NASA is working on a new craft, a rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS), along with a crew capsule dubbed Orion. The SLS is supposed to be completed and ready to fly in 2021.
One crucial point is that NASA thinks they can accomplish these goals without blowing the top out of their budget. Logsdon says, “They’re not talking about plans that imply significant budget increases. It gives a more focused use for SLS and Orion before an asteroid mission.” NASA’s budget in the proposed 2013 federal budget stands at $17.7 billion.
Stay tuned to GFR for more, because the rumors point to an official announcement about NASA’s plans coming soon.