Sentinel Exclusive: NASA wants to send astronauts beyond the moon

By Mark K. Matthews, Washington Bureau
11:32 p.m. EST, September 22, 2012

WASHINGTON — Top NASA officials have picked a leading candidate for the agency's next major mission: construction of a new outpost that would send astronauts farther from Earth than at any time in history.

The so-called "gateway spacecraft" would hover in orbit on the far side of the moon, support a small astronaut crew and function as a staging area for future missions to the moon and Mars.

At 277,000 miles from Earth, the outpost would be far more remote than the current space station, which orbits a little more than 200 miles above Earth. The distance raises complex questions of how to protect astronauts from the radiation of deep space — and rescue them if something goes wrong.

NASA Chief Charlie Bolden briefed the White House earlier this month on details of the proposal, but it's unclear whether it has the administration's support. Of critical importance is the price tag, which would certainly run into the billions of dollars.

Documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel show that NASA wants to build a small outpost — likely with parts left over from the $100 billion International Space Station — at what's known as the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2, a spot about 38,000 miles from the moon and 277,000 miles from Earth.

At that location, the combined gravities of the Earth and moon reach equilibrium, making it possible to "stick" an outpost there with minimal power required to keep it in place.

To get there, NASA would use the massive rocket and space capsule that it is developing as a successor to the retired space shuttle. A first flight of that rocket is planned for 2017, and construction of the outpost would begin two years later, according to NASA planning documents.

Potential missions include the study of nearby asteroids or dispatching robotic trips to the moon that would gather moon rocks and bring them back to astronauts at the outpost. The outpost also would lay the groundwork for more-ambitious trips to Mars' moons and even Mars itself, about 140 million miles away on average.

Placing a "spacecraft at the Earth-Moon Lagrange point beyond the moon as a test area for human access to deep space is the best near-term option to develop required flight experience and mitigate risk," concluded the NASA report.

From NASA's perspective, the outpost solves several problems.

It gives purpose to the Orion space capsule and the Space Launch System rocket, which are being developed at a cost of about $3 billion annually. It involves NASA's international partners, as blueprints for the outpost suggest using a Russian-built module and components from Italy. And the outpost would represent a baby step toward NASA's ultimate goal: human footprints on Mars.

But how the idea — and cost — play with President Barack Obama, Congress and the public remains a major question. The price tag is never mentioned in the NASA report.

Spending is being slashed across the federal government in the name of deficit reduction; it's unlikely that NASA in coming years can get more than its current budget of $17.7 billion — if that.

The planning documents indicate the outpost is possible only with "modest increases" to the current budget — and that presumes none of the cost overruns that have characterized recent NASA projects. Indeed, the first construction flight in 2019 is labeled "unfunded" in briefing charts, as is a robotic "sample return" moon mission in 2022.

One NASA supporter in Congress — U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge — said he liked the idea. But he said it would require strong White House backing to convince Congress to finance it.

NASA funding "always has been very precarious," Posey said. "And money is going to get tighter."

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, and a NASA statement was noncommittal about the outpost.

"There are many options — and many routes — being discussed on our way to the Red Planet," said spokesman David Weaver. "In addition to the moon and an asteroid, other options may be considered as we look for ways to buy down risk — and make it easier — to get to Mars.

A second major concern is astronaut safety. It will take days to get to the outpost — the farthest NASA has flown humans since the moon missions of 40 years ago — making rescue and supply missions difficult. The planning documents are unclear on whether astronauts would be permanently stationed at the outpost or there part time.

Another concern is how NASA intends to address the dangers of deep space, especially radiation.

The outpost would be more vulnerable to space radiation because it would be largely beyond the protective shield of Earth's magnetic field, said scientists with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.

"It is significantly more difficult to shield and protect their [astronauts'] health" at that location, said Jeff Chancellor, an NSBRI scientist.

  • benwelgoed at 3:28 PM September 25, 2012

    The idea of a way-station on the trip to Mars at any of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points is a solution with a sizable problem.  The solution is that the location offers a parking spot where orbital motion and gravitational attraction are nicely balanced.  However, that does not make stopping there, not leaving, free of cost (fuel).  Fueling at the post will require a sizable amount of that same fuel to be spent to enable the temporary stay, first to decelerate in trying to stop and then to accelerate to continue along.  As for selecting the best Lagrange point, L2 may be cool for repeat visits to the moon, but then again, L4 and L5 would offer always-open communication channels to both Earth and Moon, plus a more interesting vista of the earth-moon system.

  • Trinity Reznor at 12:11 PM September 25, 2012

    Here's an idea... cut the defense budget back to what it SHOULD be, stop bowing down to all of these freaking military complex jerks and redirect that to something useful.  People don't stop to think about the future, and the fact that we are quickly making this planet uninhabitable.  The only way our race will survive is if we MOVE.  Space exploration takes the steps we need to be able to find somewhere else to go live.  Science is the future and there won't be oil around much longer for us to fight wars about.

  • Bill in Clermont, FL at 9:04 PM September 24, 2012

    Can we shut down NASA which is currently a waste of taxdollars and privatize already?

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