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NASA May Be Planning Lunar Exploration as a Stepping Stone to Mars

By Wesley Fenlon

NASA has reportedly been waiting until after the presidential election to announce the future of its manned space program.

NASA last set a man down on the moon in December 1972. Almost exactly 40 years later, the administration may be planning to announce a return mission to the moon's neck of the woods, with the intent of establishing a space station in orbit on the far side of the moon. The case for more manned space exploration has been building for most of 2012, but after last week's presidential election space policy expert John Logsdon said that NASA was waiting for an Obama re-election before revealing its plans to the public.

In 2010, Obama tasked NASA with a mission: Reach and explore an asteroid by 2025. Building a space station around the moon may now be part of that plan, as it would provide a staging ground for manned flights to near-Earth asteroids and, by the 2030s, Mars. Astronauts may not be setting boots on the lunar surface during the mission--according to The Verge, the RESOLVE rover will explore the surface of the moon, drilling for water and other useful minerals. Any discovered resources could then be harvested from the moon.

While it would be an enormous undertaking to mine water or other resources on the moon, establishing that sort of lunar operation would ease the burden on shuttles launching from Earth, which have to burn enormous amounts of rocket fuel to escape the planet's gravity. Picking up those resources from the moon and outfitting for longer flights at an orbiting lunar station would make trips to asteroids or Mars far more viable.

A leaked NASA memo from earlier this year called for the station to be built at LaGrange Point 2 between the Earth and moon--a spot about 37,000 miles on the far side of the moon where the gravitational forces of the two bodies balance out. The base would remain relatively stationary, and could be constructed from parts left over from the International Space Station.

NASA's plans for the next two decades of space exploration are expected to be made public in the near future.