April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
In an Orlando Sentinel exclusive report, NASA has announced their bid in the race to become the next major mission into space: the construction of an outpost that would send astronauts further into space than any other space mission in history.
The new “gateway spacecraft” would be in orbit on the far side of the moon to support a small astronaut crew. It would serve as a staging area for future missions to the moon and Mars.
The International Space Station orbits at just over 200 miles above the Earth. The new outpost would be 277,000 miles from Earth, making it far more remote and raising complex questions of how to protect the astronauts from deep space radiation and how to rescue them in the event of an emergency.
The White House was briefed earlier this month by NASA chief Charlie Borden on the proposal’s details, but as of right now it is unclear whether or not the idea has support from the administration. The price tag might be a deciding factor, as it would run into the billions of dollars.
NASA wants to build the small outpost using parts left over from the $100-billion International Space Station (ISS) at what is known as the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2. The Lagrange Point is a spot about 38,000 miles from the moon and 277,000 miles from Earth. That location allows the combined gravities of the Earth and the moon to reach equilibrium, making it possible to keep the station in place with minimal energy expenditure.
To reach that point, NASA plans to use the massive rocket and space capsule that is currently being developed as a replacement for the shuttle program. A first flight of the new rocket is planned for 2017, which would allow construction of the outpost to begin two years later.
The Space Launch System, or SLS, is designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which can transport a crew on missions to the moon or beyond. It will also carry important cargo, equipment and experiments to Earth’s orbit. The SLS will be the first exploration-class vehicle since the Saturn V took Astronauts to the moon over 40 years ago.
Potential missions that are being planned to utilize the outpost include the study of nearby asteroids, or robotic trips to the moon to retrieve moon rocks that would be studied by the astronauts at the outpost. It could also lay the groundwork for more ambitious trips to Mars’ moons and even Mars itself, which lies about 140 million miles away.
NASA states that 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.”
The outpost is set to solve several problems for NASA and will provide a definite purpose for the Orion space capsule and the Space Launch System rocket, which are currently being developed at the cost of about $3 billion annually. It will also involve NASA’s international partners, using Russian-built modules and other components from Italy. Finally, the outpost would represent “one small step” towards NASA’s ultimate goal of putting human footprints on Mars.
The budget still remains a problem, and federal spending is being slashed across numerous government projects and departments in the name of deficit reduction. At the moment, it seems highly unlikely that NASA will get more than its current annual budget of $17.7 billion, if it receives even that much.
NASA insists that the outpost will be possible with only modest increases in their current allowance as long as they are able to avoid the types of overbudgeted projects that have plagued many of their recent endeavors. For the time being, however, the outpost and its missions are officially listed as “unfunded” in the space agency´s ledger.
“There are many options — and many routes — being discussed on our way to the Red Planet,” said NASA 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.”
The concern over astronaut safety is paramount as well. The trip to the outpost would be days long, and since this is the farthest NASA has flown since the moon missions of 40 years ago, rescue and supply missions would become difficult. It remains unclear whether the astronauts would be permanently stationed or only be at the outpost part of the time.
The physiological effects of deep-space radiation on the astronauts are also a concern as the outpost would be more vulnerable than previous missions because it would be beyond the protective shield of Earth’s magnetic field.
“It is significantly more difficult to shield and protect their [astronauts’] health” at that location, said Jeff Chancellor, a National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) scientist.
NASA acknowledges that an outpost mission would require a “culture change” to include the “acceptance of risk significantly different” from previous missions, including the shuttle program and its losses of two crews.
The space agency also still has the option of focusing on their human spaceflight program, which has languished in recent years. The Constellation program, which was to return astronauts to the moon by 2020, was cancelled by the current administration for being behind schedule and over budget.
April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online