NASA’s new mission: Bagging an asteroid. Sounds great to me.

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Published on: April 6, 2013

April 6, 2013

This week President Obama will officially present his administration’s request to Congress for a budget to run the government during the fiscal year that begins this October 1st. (We’ll just ignore that he was required by law to have done this by the first Monday in February, and that both the House and Senate have already debated and passed the first versions of their own ideas about the budget.)

What’s new and interesting for those of us in the space community, especially here on the Space Coast, is that the White House budget request will include about $100 million to begin work on a new mission for NASA that has the potential to be as historic in the course of human events as the invention of fire, the wheel, and flight.

The plan, which leaked out to the news media and was discussed during a press conference on Friday by our own Senator Bill Nelson, would have a robotic spacecraft be launched toward a small near Earth asteroid in 2019.

Once the robot ship arrived and matched the asteroid’s speed and rotation, it would deploy what amounts to a large trash bag around the space rock, pull the draw strings closed, fire up its thrusters and tow the asteroid to a point in space well beyond the Moon’s orbit but not so far as to make it too long a voyage to reach from Earth.

If successful it would be the first time in human history that we have rearranged the natural order of the solar system to our benefit in a major way.

Sure, we’ve visited the Moon and other planets, made a few scratches and dents in the surface, and we’ve done a pretty good job of changing the face of our own planet, but we’ve never actually moved a heavenly body from one orbit to another like this. (We have ever-so-minutely changed the orbit of every planet we have used for gravity sling shots, not that anyone would notice!)

You only have to look to the sky over Russia earlier this year and ask the 1,000 or so people who were hurt when an asteroid exploded over them to be reminded why learning how to move around asteroids is a capability needed by we Earthlings.

But what I’ve talked about so far is only half the story. The rest of the story is that after this small asteroid is parked beyond the Moon’s orbit in 2021, NASA will launch its first Orion spacecraft with humans on board to go rendezvous with the asteroid.

We won’t be able to land on the space rock because it will only be about 25 feet or so in diameter – about half the size of the asteroid that entered the atmosphere over Russia in February – so it won’t have any gravity to speak of. In fact, if this captured asteroid went off course for any reason, it is small enough that it would completely burn up in our atmosphere.

So instead of landing on the asteroid, spacewalking astronauts will float outside the Orion capsule to do a little prospecting. I imagine they would take surface samples, perhaps try to drill for a core sample, and tag the rock with laser reflectors and other science instruments, much along the same lines of the tasks done by the Apollo astronauts at the Moon.

Now in today’s cynical, next-quarter-results, what’s-in-it-for-me-world where late night comedians are now too often mistaken as a legitimate source of news, you might imagine the reaction this will get. I’m sure David Letterman’s staff is working right now on their asteroid-themed Top Ten list for Monday night’s show.

I’ve already seen some naysayers pop up in the space blogs complaining that this is a bad idea for reasons I don’t agree with. And then there’s the multitude of general audience commentators who still think we waste all our money in space, and that somehow if we don’t spend $100 million on this mission we can cure all the ills of the world.

Well I think this is an idea we all should get excited about. I’ll give you five reasons to consider:

First, the plan gives us the specific mission and timeline that so many in the space community have been clamoring for since the president killed the Constellation program: capture an asteroid in 2019, move it closer and send humans there in 2021.

If approved you should be able to ask anyone at a NASA space center – engineers or scientists, managers or staff, white collar or blue – what’s your job? And they will be able to answer “send humans to a captured asteroid by 2021.” OK, so the date isn’t as sexy as saying by the end of the decade, but if the President and Congress would invest more money in the program and step up their leadership game, perhaps it could be by the end of the decade.

Second, this gives the new Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System a more defined mission, a specific use, rather than the generic “supporting a deep space mission for humans” that we have right now.

While I still remain unconvinced the SLS is the best way to go, and still can’t accept why it’s taking so long to design and will be so expensive to operate, I do believe we need a heavy lift capability that goes beyond what we have now. I’m also not ready to accept the notion promoted by the new space community that the still un-flown SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy is the answer to everything.

Third, this mission would give us some badly needed experience in executing longer missions into deep space. And as much as I would like to see us return to the lunar surface sooner than later, this asteroid mission is more interesting to me than circling the Moon or hovering with a space station in a Lagrangian point. In any case, before we start sending humans to land on Mars and stay there for weeks at a time, we need more experience of the type this asteroid mission would provide.

Fourth, with all the interest in mining asteroids by private companies, this mission offers great opportunities for NASA to partner with these new firms, share ideas and expertise, and together realize a greater return to the nation on our investment. (Including economic stimulus, improvements in technology and any number of unpredictable commercial spin offs.)

Finally, this solves a problem for NASA, who was told by the President to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars a decade later. Bringing an asteroid closer to Earth makes that more possible to do, and more interesting to do, in a shorter timeframe. Now whether or not this will excite the public and Congress enough to invest more in a space program and perhaps get us to Mars faster than the mid-2030s, we’ll have to wait and see.

Bottom line for me is that for many years I have joked that the best thing that could ever happen to our space program would be if a 10-mile-wide asteroid was discovered to be on a collision course with downtown Manhattan. You’d see renewed widespread interest in a robust and capable space program then.

It was always a joke because the threat of asteroids hitting the Earth was never taken seriously, and was always relegated either to the history of the dinosaurs or to the silver screen and the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Now it seems that dealing with the threat of asteroids and learning even more about them by sending humans to one has percolated enough and, with apologies for mixing metaphors, is now ready for the big leagues. And it’s about time.

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