NASA's Good Librations

Advocates for human space flight have bickered for decades--mostly among themselves--over whether people should return to the moon or go directly to Mars. Now some NASA officials are urging a middle path: Create a small outpost of humans and advanced robotics at the point where the gravity of Earth and the moon cancel each other out.

An outpost at that stable "libration point"--just 100,000 kilometers from the lunar surface--could serve as a gateway for robotic and eventually human missions to the moon and Mars, says Harley Thronson, NASA's chief of space science technology and co-author of a paper to be presented next week in Houston, Texas. More immediately, the outpost could fine-tune or fix instruments--such as a planned new telescope--that will hover just beyond Earth's orbit.

NASA is funding a $5 million study to flesh out future uses of such human and robotic platforms. An informal planning effort begun under the Clinton Administration has already borne fruit: It helped launch the space agency's push for 2003 funding for nuclear propulsion and electric technologies. Now, insiders predict that NASA's next budget request will include support for other new technologies, as a way to build up NASA's technical arsenal.