In a recent piece in the Space Review, Jeff Foust recounts a talk given by Harold White, Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead at the Johnson Space Center, at the annual meeting of the Students for Exploration and Development of Space.
The subject of the talk was current NASA thinking concerning space exploration beyond low Earth orbit and the use of the planned deep space station.
The deep space station
Rumors have been rife that the first step of NASA's space exploration plan would be the establishment of a deep space station at the Earth/moon L2 point, where the gravity of the Earth and moon cancel each other out beyond the lunar far side, since a story in the Orlando Sentinel. The deep space station would serve as a training center for deep space missions, say to an asteroid, as well as a way station to the same. With the re-election of President Barack Obama, stories, such as the one in Space.com, that NASA would make an official announcement in the near future, proliferated.
Current NASA thinking on the deep space station and space exploration
The Space Review reported that White laid out a program for space exploration using the deep space station, subject to change. The core of the station would be deployed at L2 using the heavy-lift Space Launch System. Soon after, a crew of astronauts, using the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle, would visit the deep space station for a 30-day stay. At the end of the mission, the deep space station would be moved to the Earth/moon L1 point using a solar electric engine. L1 is where the Earth's and moon's gravity cancel one another out between the two celestial bodies. The deep space station would be placed in a "halo orbit" that would allow it to dwell over the lunar poles for a period of time. Subsequent missions would take place once a year and would be of increasing duration.
Decision point in 2022, go to the moon or go beyond
The Space Review goes on to suggest that NASA envisions a decision being made in the year 2022. If NASA decides to proceed with President Obama's plan to bypass the moon and perhaps to visit an asteroid, the deep space station would be moved to a location far away from Earth, perhaps at the Earth/Sun L2 point. Otherwise, if NASA chose, perhaps at the command of a future president, to return to the moon, the deep space station would be moved to a low lunar orbit to support lunar surface operations.
Criticisms of the NASA plan
President Obama's desire to send astronauts to an asteroid remains controversial. Richard Hollingham, writing for the BBC, supports the idea of ditching the asteroid mission and refocusing on the moon. On the other hand, Keith Cowing at NASA Watch accuses NASA of "mission creep" in defiance of President Obama and suggests that there is no money available for any exploration program. On the other hand, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act designates the moon as a destination for astronaut explorers. President Obama signed that bill into law.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.
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