Speculation Mounts About a Return to the Moon

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Media speculation has proliferated, thanks to a recent article in Space.com, about an impending Obama administration announcement concerning a base to be located beyond the lunar farside, at a Lagrange point where the Earth's and moon's gravity cancel each other out.

Beyond the moon or then to the moon?

Officially the space exploration goals of the Obama administration remain pointed toward an Earth-approaching asteroid and, beyond that, Mars. But some media organizations, such as the Global Post, are focusing on a statement by NASA deputy chief Lori Garver in the Space.com story. "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."

Notice the wording of the statement. She mentions not only the space around the Earth-moon system, but the moon itself. A deep space station at the Earth/moon L2 point would be a stepping stone for not only tele-operated robots on the lunar surface, but human expeditions as well.The Global Post story quotes former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao as suggesting that a lunar surface base has some advantages over a L2 deep space station, mainly for ease of radiation protection.

Or maybe not back to the moon

Arguing against the idea that the Obama administration is eying the moon, David Portee, writing for Wired, suggests that the deep space station is an end in itself and not a way of going back to the moon (or any place else) in the near term. The L2 deep space station would serve as a practice run for deep space expeditions further into the future.

Needed: a lander

Of course, to get back to the moon, one needs a lander. NASA actually has two projects running subscale lunar-style landers, Morpheus, out of the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Texas, and Mighty Eagle, out of the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Alabama. These two projects, testing new engines and flight navigation systems, might be used to scale up to a lander capable of taking humans to and from the moon. Another idea, suggested by the UK Guardian, would be for an international partner, say Europe, to develop the lander as a cost-sharing effort. A commercially developed lander is yet another possibility.

Why the Obama administration would switch back to the moon

Obama administration space policy has featured a number of abrupt and seemingly ad hoc changes in direction. These include the original cancellation of the Constellation program, the announcement of the asteroid goal, and the more recent cuts to the planetary science budget. A lurch back toward the moon is not outside the realm of possibility. NASA Spaceflight recently revealed that expeditions to the lunar surface are in the NASA exploration roadmap, it is just a question of when and how.

Even if the Obama administration defers a lunar surface expedition, the establishment of the deep space station remains a stepping stone for such endeavors, should the next administration, to take office in 2017, decides on it.

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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