NASA is apparently thinking seriously about launching astronauts to Earth-moon L2
, a spot in space beyond the moon’s far side. EML-
2 is a so-called libration point where the gravitational pulls of the moon and Earth roughly balance out, allowing spacecraft to essentially park there.
Astronauts would ride to EML-2 aboard NASA’s Orion capsule, which is being built by Lockheed Martin. Orion would get off the ground atop the Space Launch System
(SLS), the agency’s huge new deep-space rocket. The launcher’s first unmanned test flight is slated for 2017, and NASA hopes the SLS-Orion combo will begin carrying crews by 2021.
Why (Earth-moon) L2? From there, astronauts could teleoperate rovers on the far side with relative ease, helping explore a part of the moon that remains little-studied to date.
But ther’s another reason. Though it has many ambitious aspects, setting the stage for Asteroidal and even Mars missions
, it will be perched at a point from which it is very easy to get home, should something go wrong. In fact, it is the farthest you can get from home, and still have an almost-free return ride.
Now the dissenting view: Is there really any need for this, right now? The Orion and SLS are starting to look like dinosaurs, in an era when Elon Musk’s Falcon and Dragon may lead to similar capabilities at far lower cost and several other private space ventures appear on the verge of bearing fruit, as well.
When you get right down to it, almost anything humans can do at L2 can be done by robots and the biggest reason to go with humans is to justify the existence of Orion and SLS. Far mor interesting might be to actually start doing something interesting with the International Space Station! Oh, but that’s another story.
I’ve met Willaim “Red” Whittaker, who wants to send robots probing lava tubes that we have reason to think may be up there, and that might be potentially great resources to serve as habitats for lunar stations. Serving on NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts advisory board, I helped appraise this cool concept. The Moon isn’t the only astronomical body that is pocked with holes. Pits on Mars, lined up like strung beads above what seem to be lava tubes, promise to reveal details about the planet’s inner layers without the need for drilling holes. And underground caves on Mars could shelter ice deposits, or even remnants of life.