Is Catching An Asteroid The Best Way To Mars?

By Frank Morring, Jr.
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
June 03, 2013
Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Frustrated lawmakers on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee may force a public debate on U.S. human spaceflight plans as they prepare a new authorization bill for NASA this summer. Their efforts may actually bring an important discussion about what the U.S. is doing in civil space out of closed government meeting rooms and into the view of taxpayers, who ultimately will fund it. At issue, as stated with unusual clarity by science-panel leaders in a May 21 hearing, is the best way to send humans to Mars.

Members of both parties were lukewarm at best in their assessment of the space agency's new plan to capture a small asteroid and divert it into lunar orbit for astronauts to study from an Orion capsule. Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the House Science space subcommittee, said he worries the asteroid-capture plan is “a detour” on the way to Mars. Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, ranking Democrat on the space panel, warns that “before we look at interim steps, we need first to understand what it takes to get to Mars.”

“As our space program prepares for the next step to Mars, Congress must ensure that there is a strategic plan in place,” says Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the full committee.

Smith notes Congress has repeatedly endorsed using the lunar surface as a “training ground” for human missions to Mars, as with this concept (shown above) of inflatable habitats proposed by Bigelow Aerospace, and he cast the hearing as an investigation into how capturing an asteroid would play the same role.

“Without a consensus for the original plan, NASA haphazardly created a new asteroid-retrieval mission,” Smith says. “Unfortunately, NASA did not seek the advice of its own Small Bodies Assessment Group before presenting the mission to Congress. If NASA had sought the advisory group's advice, they would have heard it was 'entertaining, but not a serious proposal.' Maybe that's why they didn't ask.”

If the reauthorization process for NASA actually produces the debate Smith wants, it will reheat a fundamental disagreement simmering since the then-new Obama administration killed the Bush-era Constellation program of post-shuttle human space exploration. Under that approach, a lunar landing in the 2020s would provide the experience needed to move on to the red planet.

But a renewed debate also may find common ground that eluded both sides in President Barack Obama's first term. While witnesses at the hearing disagreed on the Moon-vs.-asteroid issue, they accept Obama's view—endorsed by the requisite blue-ribbon commission—that there wasn't enough funding for a Constellation-level assault on Mars.

“All of us agree, I believe, on the next step—orbit the Moon,” says Cornell University astronomer Steven Squyres, chairman of NASA's Advisory Council and top scientist on the twin Mars Exploration Rovers. “Beyond that, my plea to you, my heartfelt plea, please do not mandate another step for NASA beyond lunar orbit unless there is ample funding for it. That would amount to an unfunded mandate, and that is the bane of government agencies.”

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