The world’s leading space agencies are reportedly discussing the use of the International Space Station as a launch pad for a manned trip around the moon. The goal would be to test whether the station could be a base camp for missions to asteroids and Mars, the BBC reports today.

Officials at NASA, the ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos have circulated letters discussing the possibility of an Apollo 8-style lunar orbit mission. “We need the courage of starting a new era,” Europe’s director of human spaceflight, Simonetta Di Pippo, told BBC News.

The idea is to assemble a small spacecraft on-site at the ISS and use it to ferry a team of astronauts around the moon. The mission would resemble Apollo 8, the first mission to carry humans around another celestial body. The spacecraft would likely go straight back to Earth, rather than returning to the ISS.

President Obama is expected to sign NASA’s budget bill this afternoon, which calls in part for continuing space station experiments through 2020. But beyond that, unless the station’s partner nations extend its life, the ISS will become a huge piece of space junk.

To avoid that fate, the five ISS partners — the US, Europe, Russia, Japan and Canada — are already mulling how to reuse or repurpose the orbiting outpost. One proposal calls for using Node 3, the cupola-equipped new room, as crew quarters for a long-distance spaceflight. A moon mission is just one more possibility.

A new study will examine how the ISS could be used for a space-based moon shot, as well as which existing systems could be adapted for new goals. As the BBC notes, any new moon mission would need some kind of command module and a departure stage, something to propel the astronauts out of low-Earth orbit and toward the moon.

ISS-based moon missions are of course a long way from reality. But the fact that it’s been discussed, apparently at high levels, is a sign that spacefaring nations can still see beyond politics and policy to dream big.

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The ISS appears as a glint in front of the moon in this image from April 2010. It was taken moments before the space shuttle Discovery launched for a rendezvous with the station.

BBC News