The exact pathway of NASA’s Journey to Mars is a bit sketchy at the current time. The Space agency plans to land astronauts on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s. An uncrewed test of the Orion deep space craft and the heavy lift Space Launch System, both vital parts of the Mars program, is scheduled for 2018 with a crewed mission to follow as early as 2021. NASA plans the controversial asteroid redirect mission for some time in the 2020s.

Beyond that, what the space agency intends to do before astronauts depart for Mars is a little vague.

One idea that has been ruled out, at least for now, is a return to the lunar surface. Despite a number of studies that suggest that the moon contains materials to make rocket fuel that would make the Journey to Mars easier and cheaper, the moon is Barack Obama’s quarantine regions by presidential directive.

However, as pointed out, NASA is allowed to venture near the moon. The idea is to deploy a human tended habitat in what scientists call a distant retrograde orbit around the moon, which would be so stable that it would not need to fire thrusters for station keeping. The habitat would be visited periodically by astronauts in an Orion for stays of over 30 days.

Why go a spot near the moon without going all the way there?

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The Cislunar habitat, as it would be called, would be beyond the Earth’s magnetic field, which means it would be able to simulate conditions of an interplanetary voyage. Astronauts would test out recycling, life support, radiation protection, and other technologies that would be of use for the first people to go to Mars.

And since the moon is right there, the astronauts would tele-operate robots on the lunar surface, picking up rock and soil samples.

While humans would not return to the moon physically, they would be able to do so virtually.

On the other hand, if the next administration decides that a lunar surface return is worthwhile after all, the cislunar habitat would be a good waystation for astronauts voyaging between Earth and moon. The habitat could even be expanded to become a refueling station, supplied by rocket fuel refined from lunar ice water on the lunar surface.

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