Could A Moon Outpost Soon Be A Reality?
Thursday, October 25th, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
As the world “ooohs and aaahs” at Curiosity making its way across Mars, some Moon lovers can’t help but feel a little slighted. Their question is obvious enough: Why are we always talking about one day getting humans to the Red Planet, while ignoring the possibilities of continued lunar exploration?
NASA may now have an answer for that. Plans are afoot to build another Space Station, this time in a stationary orbit on the other side of the Moon, according to reports first carried by Tribune Newspapers.
The floating Moon outpost would be a place humans could use for exploring the Moon, and as a starting point to reach destinations in outer space.
While the International Space Station orbits some 240 miles (or about 380 kilometers) above the Earth, the Moon outpost would be 277,000 miles away from Earth, according to documents obtained by Tribune.
The outpost would be about 38,000 miles from the Moon, at a spot dubbed the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2. There are five Lagrange Points, where there is equilibrium between the pull of the Earth and Moon, and the sun, so that an object — say, a space station — would orbit the sun while maintaining the same position relative to the Earth and Moon. Such a point would make it easy to keep a Moon post in orbit without expending a lot of energy. What would have to be expended is a lot of money. The International Space Station took about $100 billion to build, and even more to operate. The cost to build and operate a Moon outpost would certainly be in the billions.
There is some speculation that parts of the ISS could be recycled after its retirement (recently said to be in 2020, but really the date’s a moving target) for the Moon outpost.
Besides money, there’s the whole how-do-you-get-there-and-back question. NASA does have a successor to the space shuttle in the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle program. But the first test flight for that is still a few years away.
And, most importantly, there are concerns about crew safety. Much is still to be learned about how to protect astronauts from space radiation, as well as the long-term effects of living in zero gravity and in deep isolation on a space explorer’s body and mind. Such an outpost would have to be regularly supplied — or be able to sustain itself — with food, oxygen and energy. And it would be nice to be able to ensure crew rescue if something goes awry.
So, there are plans, but there are also many obstacles before the Earth sets up a “gateway” spacecraft on the far side of the Moon. (Solutions to many of those obstacles may yet be found in the ongoing crew safety and sustainability experiments aboard the ISS.) In the meantime, we can still watch in wonder at what’s happening on Mars and be happy to gaze down on Earth from a mere 240 miles in space, from that international outpost that’s working just fine so far.
No recycling yet. Work to do.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com.