NASA Considering New Outpost On Moon
“The station could serve as a communications hub for the Solar System, and offer a starting point for any future manned exploration of the Solar System.”
The first step in space travel of all sorts, and particularly in sending manned missions to Mars and beyond, is breaking free of Earth’s gravity well. Historical plans to beat this scientific fact have included space stations in Earth’s orbit or even permanently manned stations on the surface of the moon, as the moon has an escape velocity of 2.4 kilometers per second (1.5 miles per second) compared with Earth’s 11.2 km/s (6.95 miles/second) and no pesky atmosphere for a launching spacecraft to fight against. NASA, however, has announced a new possibility: a space station parked in space on the far side of the moon.
“Unfortunately, NASA has yet to announce a cost for this ambitious project, but it is likely to be steep. NASA has never been a favorite money sink for short-sighted politicians, and has suffered budget cuts for years.”
NASA plans to place the station, possibly composed of parts left over from the building of the International Space Station, about 277,000 miles from Earth and 38,000 miles from the moon, at a gravitational balance point referred to as the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2. At this point, the gravity of the Earth and moon balances, allowing the new station to sit stationary with respect to the Earth and moon, rather than orbiting one or the other. For reference, the International Space station orbits the Earth at a piddling 230 miles up.
There are a few problems with the plan: for one, astronauts would be exposed to the radiation of deep space. Also, the station’s distance would make it difficult to resupply regularly. If scientists and engineers can solve these problems, however, the gains could be enormous. The station could serve as a communications hub for the Solar System, and offer a starting point for any future manned exploration of the Solar System. In the far future, such a station might even be able to build ships in free-fall, allowing for engineering possibilities far beyond what might be obtained when the only method of launching is a giant rocket. It could ultimately make space exploration both cheaper and safer.
Last February, Space.com was able to reveal documents showing the creation of a team of experts that will discuss and develop a plan to explore this possibility. According to their studies, a construction flight, utilizing the new Space Launch System and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, could happen as soon as 2019. Unfortunately, NASA has yet to announce a cost for this ambitious project, but it is likely to be steep. NASA has never been a favorite money sink for short-sighted politicians, and has suffered budget cuts for years.
The fact that this project is now only in the planning phase makes it hard to get too excited about it; but, it is certainly nice to see NASA considering new options for establishing a permanent human beachhead outside of the atmosphere.
For more on the new station, check out Red Orbit’s excellent article.