With the 2012 elections over, NASA should soon announce its next goal for manned space exploration. The destination would be L2, a balanced gravitational point on the far side of the moon. A manned outpost there would enable NASA to gain experience in deep space operations toward a 2025 asteroid visit.
Putting a manned station at L2 should be an affordable goal in NASA's tight budget, and provides an initial set of missions for the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion space capsule, designed for Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) operations. The outpost could use a combination of new build hardware and scavenged parts from the International Space Station (ISS), depending on how long ISS continues to operate.
Current funding by NASA and its international partners support ISS operations through 2020, but there are already discussions to extend ISS' lifetime.
A first exploration of L2 could come in 2021, reports Space.com, with the first manned flight of SLS and Orion. NASA Exploration Mission 2 of the SLS/Orion combination is currently penciled in as a lunar flyby, but may turn into a more ambitious project.
Long term stays at L2 would provide a testing ground for manned space hardware outside of the comfort zone of low earth orbit (LEO) to work out high-bandwidth communications, radiation shielding, and life support.
There are also rumblings of teleoperations between L2 to the lunar surface, providing faster and potentially more effective operation of unmanned rovers as there's no multi-second time lag one would have with an earth-bound operator.
Operations at L2 would also provide experience in managing deep space missions to points farther out, including an asteroid mission and Mars. Exploration of the moon had Earth-bound controllers very much "in the loop" for mission events and supervision, but longer communications cycles will certainly have an impact on deep space human exploration.
Earth-bound mission managers may end up batch processing tasks on Mars, e-mailing them in the exploration team's "night" and getting back results bit by bit as they are completed during an exploration "day."
Advocates of commercial space operations and fuel depots also see potential at L2. Bigelow Aerospace has suggested in Congressional testimony that its private-sector-built BA 330 expandable habitats could provide living and working space for astronauts at L2. If NASA built a fuel depot at L2 to provision deep space missions to asteroids and Mars, it would create a market for commercial space mining companies such as Planetary Resources to harvest ice from the Moon and asteroids for stockpiling water, oxygen and hydrogen – elements necessary for life support and fuel.
Edited by Braden Becker