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Sunday, November 11, 2012

NASA Budget to Determine Exploration Path: L2 Outpost, Mars Return, Europa Orbiter

President Obama and Speaker Boehner
With the final vote count in Florida, and the state electoral colleges expected to meet at the respective state capitols next month, most space policy is now being centered on the federal budget and the fiscal future of NASA the next two budget years.

Depending upon what happens in the next few months on Capitol Hill and at the White House, especially the talks between President Barack Obama (vid) and Speaker of the House John A. Boehner, NASA's future exploration path will be determined by budget cash.
 
In the short term, NASA's 2013 (vid) and 2014 budgets are still undecided, with much depending on automatic sequestration cuts that could kick in next year, the "fiscal cliff" that the President and Congress hopes to avoid prior to January 1, 2013. There is a lot of "big science" at-risk.
 
Europa orbiter. Credit NASA/JPL
Planetary exploration advocates are concentrating on 2014, because that represents a deadline for setting up 2018 missions to send a probe to Europa - one of Jupiter's moons - (vid) and bring rock samples back from Mars.

The Planetary Society has been an outspoken opponent (vid) of the administration’s proposed 20-percent cut in planetary science funding, from $1.5 to $1.2 billion in the 2013 budget proposal. The House and Senate have partially restored that funding in their versions of appropriations bills that include NASA, but a final spending bill awaits negotiations in the month ahead on far larger issues involving federal spending and taxes.
 
Far side of the Moon. Credit NASA
NASA is said to be planning a potentially international human deep space outpost just beyond the far side of the moon at Lagrange point (L2). The outpost would serve as a training ground for astronauts to eventually travel to other destinations, such as an asteroid or Mars. It could also serve as a staging point for international and commercial activities on the surface of the moon.
 
Artist rendering of spacecraft at L2
Funding for the L2 outpost and Mars sample return mission could depend on preventing the federal budget sequestration, automatic trigger cuts to all U.S. discretionary spending. The cuts are set to begin January 1, 2013 and last for nine years, after a Congressional committee couldn't reach an agreement to reduce the federal deficit in 2011. Most political observers believe some kind of deal may emerge to avoid the deep federal program cuts.

Furthermore, both sides of the American Congressional political isles are observing the aspirations of Asian nations, particularly China and India. Both nations have cast their eye to the moon and to Mars. There are creditable overtures being made for China-India space project collaboration.
 

Exploring the Moon's Farside is an early goal of the Stepping Stones sequence of missions, which use the Orion spacecraft to explore incrementally more distant destinations beyond Low Earth Orbit, beginning with the Moon at L2, then asteroids, and culminating in a trip to the moons of Mars.
 
Click to expand L2 location
L2 is a location where the combined gravity of the Earth and Moon allows a spacecraft to be synchronized with the Moon in its orbit around the Earth, so the spacecraft is relatively stationary over the Farside of the Moon.

An alternative to the L2 outpost is a lunar base for human and robotic operations, as suggested by Bob Clark in a comment to the November 8, 2012 post entitled, "NASA Gearing-Up Human Spaceflight for the Moon in President Obama's Second-Term?" 

North Los Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace has proposed a private outpost on the surface of the moon as a part of their inflatable habitat business plan.  At least three (3)  Google Lunar X-Prize contestant firms (vid) are on the cusp of emerging with robotic lunar rovers aboard booster rockets from the United States and China in 2014.

NASA has also a dormant plan to place a walking Robonaut on the surface of the Moon within 1,000-days of green light, at a relatively modest taxpayer cost. NASA has studied lunar bases (vid) since the 1969-1972 Apollo lunar landings and throughout the pre-commercial Internet Age.
 

The Japanese and Americans have humanoid-like robots, similar to Robonaut-2 now orbiting at the International Space Station, with soon-to-be technology readiness to explore the surface of the Moon. The technology and software provide significantly enhanced human-to-virtual reality robotics.

The Japanese have touted a lunar base tended by  robots along with longer-term commercial lunar projects. NASA has even begun to discuss lunar surface property rights. Nations around the globe - from China-to-Germany - are looking to exploit lunar resources.

President Obama and Elon Musk
Despite Obama's election year critics, the President has advanced policies that have allowed a new generation commercial culture emerge with significant bona fides, lead by SpaceX. Now with repeated successful cargo up and down missions to the orbiting International Space Station, SpaceX boosters and commercial cargo will soon be moon-bound.

Aldrin shows Obama moon Phobos
The President can begin to set the trajectory of America's space program in his second-term. If he is to fulfil the longer-term goals of placing humans on a moon of Mars by 2035, the White House and  Congress must dial-down partisanship and come to agreement on the plans now unfolding within the space agency lead by the administration.

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