“I don't know if this can be done,” Squyres says. “I don't know what it's going to cost. It's a very new idea; it's very immature.”
Administrator Charles Bolden met that same skepticism when he presented the asteroid-capture idea to the House Science Committee on April 24, and emphasized that the $105 million in NASA's fiscal 2014 budget request would only advance mission-concept and SEP technology work. While the House panel has held hearings on the threat to Earth from asteroids, its members also were unsure of the value in actually capturing one for study.
“I am concerned that NASA has neglected congressional funding priorities and been distracted by new and questionable missions that detract from our ultimate deep-space exploration goals,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the panel's space subcommittee.”
In its “compromise” 2010 legislation authorizing NASA spending, Congress insisted the agency build the SLS and Orion as government-owned deep-space exploration vehicles, and as a backup to the planned commercial crew vehicles NASA is also helping to fund. Gerstenmaier says the first Orion flight article—an instrumented testbed designed to gauge just how thick and heavy the capsule's ablative thermal protection system must be to protect the crew on a high-velocity planetary return—is at Kennedy Space Center awaiting arrival of the blunt-end heat shield from its manufacturer, and is on-track to fly on a Delta IV next year as planned.
SLS Program Manager Todd May says the main issues going into preliminary design review in June are whether the surplus space shuttle main engines can be operated safely—with enough performance—in the different loads environment they will see on the SLS main stage, and a casting problem that required a redo on one of the five segments of the solid-fuel booster qualification motor. The SLS remains on-track for a first flight in 2017, he says.
Bolden says the asteroid mission is the logical next step on the road to Mars, as long as Congress supplies the funds. “Since we're operating under a flat budget, the one that is executable in today's budget environment is an asteroid mission.”
But Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, worries that the agency is not asking for enough funds to do the job, even without sequestration and other budget-trimming impediments.
“There's been a pattern, not only in NASA but across all agencies, to low-ball estimates,” she says. “Those low-ball estimates tend to be inaccurate, and then along comes something like sequester, which has a tremendous impact.”
Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST for NASA's detailed mapping of the asteroid capture mission, or go to AviationWeek.com/asteroidcapture