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Obama win may mean NASA 'nauts to Deep Space as soon as 2021

Earth-Moon L2 jaunt would see them beyond lunar farside

NASA could be getting ready to set up a manned space outpost now that President Barack Obama is back in the White House.

A space policy expert told Space.com that the agency has been thinking about sending astronauts to the far side of the Moon so it can establish a human presence in deep space and so to help with a planned visit to an asteroid in 2025.

John Logsdon of George Washington University reckons that the plans have probably already been cleared with the Obama administration, but they didn't want to let the secret out in case Mitt Romney won Tuesday's election.

"NASA has been evolving its thinking, and its latest charts have inserted a new element of cislunar/lunar gateway/Earth-moon L2 sort of stuff into the plan," he said. L2 refers to a Lagrange or libration point where two bodies' gravitational pulls roughly balance out, allowing spacecraft to essentially park there.

If Republican candidate Romney was in the driving seat, NASA would probably be looking at the cancellation or scaling back of its missions. Romney had said in a September policy paper that the agency did not need more funding to be "strong and successful".

"Romney will ensure that NASA has practical and sustainable missions. There will be a balance of pragmatic and top-priority science with inspirational and groundbreaking exploration programs," the paper said.

In his previous term, Obama got NASA working with private space firms and also set out goals to get astronauts to an asteroid by 2020 and near Mars by the mid-2030s. To this end, NASA is in the middle of developing a huge rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the capsule known as Orion.

As well as encouraging some space exploration however, Obama also cancelled the Constellation programme, which was supposed to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020.

An outpost beyond the Moon wouldn't just take 'nauts back out beyond low Earth orbit, it would also test SLS and Orion before they're sent on their further missions.

"They're not talking about plans that imply significant budget increases," Logsdon said. "It gives a more focused use for SLS and Orion before an asteroid mission."

He added that it was possible that NASA would use Exploration Mission 2 in 2021, the second scheduled SLS flight ever and the first manned, to start looking at Earth-Moon L2 rather than just being a lunar orbit mission. ®

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