Far Side of the Moon
Happy Thanksgiving to the US!
Despite uncertainties in budgets and the world, work is continuing on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. On December 14 Orion will be displayed at the Michoud Assembly Facility to mark completion of the Ground Test Article. Congress has approved funding for a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle to boost Orion beyond LEO. Both a CEV and booster would be needed to finally get beyond Low Earth Orbit.
Lockheed-Martin, prime contractor for Orion, is still thinking of missions using Orion's unique capabilities. Previously they proposed using two docked Orions for an asteroid mission dubbed "Plymouth Rock." This week they proposed a mission to Lagrangian Point L2, on the far side of the Moon. A crew at L2 would send robotic probes to the surface, exploring the far side and poles. L2 is also a point coveted by Space colony enthusiasts, who would use it as a staging area for lunar materials. The far side of the Moon is a great location for radio astronomy, being protected by the Moon's bulk from Earth radio noise.
Another possible destination is the Earth-Sun L2 point, 1.5 million km from Earth. This is the future location of the troubled James Webb Space Telescope. JWST, like previous Space telescopes, will someday need servicing. Hopefully the JWST builders will include a docking capability with Orion. Rendezvous with JWST would be good training for a near-Earth asteroid.
FLORIDA TODAY reports an even more audacious plan. Their article claims that Lockheed wants to launch Orion unmanned atop a Delta IV EELV in 2013. In this mission Orion would orbit to 8000 km altitude and test its performance in the deep Space environment. Controllers on Earth would test the spacecraft's stability and control. The test would include reentry and water landing off Southern California. If successful, this would make a human asteroid mission possible by 2015. The article doesn't mention that a heavy lift booster would still be required to reach an asteroid.
High Earth orbit, the lunar farside or Sun-Earth L2 point are possible stepping-stones to an asteroid mission. The trip to a near-Earth asteroid could put a crew in Space for months. In turn an asteroid mission would be training for a mission to Phobos or Deimos. With the right steps, Orion and a Heavy Lift Launcher could send crews on the way to Mars soon.
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