Scott Meiklejohn, staff writer
September 29, 2012 — In 1903, the Wright brothers took flight. 66 years later, Neil Armstrong took one small step. Following that pattern, in 2035, will humanity witness a giant leap on Mars? Recent reports suggest that NASA has already begun putting plans into motion to achieve that cosmic moment.
Last week, the Orlando Sentinel reported that top NASA officials have decided on their next project --the construction of a space exploration platform over 60,000 kilometres beyond the moon.
The outpost would be at a gravitational balance point known as EML-2, about 450,000 kilometres away from Earth. At that location, the combined gravities of Earth and moon reach equilibrium which would allow the proposed station to use little power to maintain a stationary position.
From that outpost at EML-2, astronauts could study nearby asteroids, pilot robots to collect moon rocks and perhaps most ambitiously -- use the station as a resting point on a manned mission to Mars.
President Barack Obama has set long range goals of sending astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid in the mid-2020s and to Mars and its moons by the mid-2030s.
NASA is currently focused on development of the Orion deep-space capsule and the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS). Both endeavours will be key elements for the construction of the deep-space station project.
The first unmanned test of the Orion and SLS are set for 2017. Next in 2021, a test flight is scheduled that would take astronauts on a loop past the moon and return back to Earth without stopping.
The vision for the EML-2 station would be to utilize it as an exploration gateway platform -- a stopping point on the way to farther-out destinations. As well it could be used as a co-ordination base for lunar missions.
Last week, while speaking at Seattle's Museum of Flight at a summit of astronauts and mission controllers, Buzz Aldrin told NBC on the subject of EML-2, "It's part of my unified space vision."
Aldrin believes that NASA should be at the forefront of space transportation beyond Earth orbit and leave the development of facilities on the moon's surface to commercial ventures.
A human operated space station at EML-2 could be an operations base to direct the robotic construction of habitats and factories on the moon, which would then be later occupied by humans.
The end goal would be to have a human-tended space station on the Martian moon Phobos, where a similar operation of robotic lead construction of facilities for permanent residents could be built on Mars.
"We make a commitment to permanence. It's like the Pilgrims on the Mayflower," said Aldrin to NBC.
But colonizing the Red Planet is in no way an easy task.
NASA's budget has come under fire recently, with a billion dolllars expected to be slashed in funding next year.
Despite cost cuts in a post-recession market they've done remarkably well on a tighter budget.
The reported cost to put NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars was $2.5 billion (USD). The Apollo mission to put a man on the Moon in 1969, cost $156.5 billion (in 2010 USD).
For some perspective, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, U.K. cost $14.5 billion (USD) and the 2012 budget for the United States Department of Defence is more than $850 billion (USD).
Early speculations put the cost of development at $18 billion through 2017 and as much as $35 billion by the time the program is complete.
Along with obvious economic issues to completing the space exploration platform, technical challenges pose a problem as well.
For instance, in deep space that far out past the moon the Earth's protective magnetic field is weak and astronauts would be susceptible to high radiation levels.
As well, at that distance in emergency situations, rescue missions or supply runs to the outpost would take days.