After the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council on Thursday, NASA announced plans to send American astronauts outside of low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972.
Previously, the Obama administration had instructed NASA to focus on sending a human to land on an asteroid for its next mission outside of low orbit, as a sort of practice run for a Mars mission. The National Space Council, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, instructed NASA last week to scrap the asteroid plans and instead prepare for interplanetary travel in what’s called “cis-lunar space,” or the area around the moon.
The moon, with its barren landscape and lack of atmosphere, is a convenient “proving ground” for future endeavors into the solar system. Interestingly, while Mars is the clear choice for humankind’s first interplanetary mission, NASA repeatedly referred to manned missions beyond Mars in its description of its new directives.
“Based on a number of conversations I’ve had with the council, we have highlighted a number of initiatives underway in this important area, including a study of an orbital gateway or outpost that could support a sustained cadence of robotic and human missions, as well as ensuing human missions to the lunar and Mars surfaces, and other destinations,” acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement Wednesday.
NASA also intends to use robotic landers to “explore the nature of the Moon and its resources, such as water.”
“We have already been planning human missions to cis-lunar space beginning with Exploration Mission-2, and with the upcoming budget process, we will look to solidify this work with our new goals in place,” he added.