Is Catching An Asteroid The Best Way To Mars?

By Frank Morring, Jr.
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Louis Friedman, the former Planetary Society chief who co-chaired the Keck Institute panel that originally drafted the asteroid-capture proposal, argued that it “creates a first step beyond the Moon, the only one which we are now capable of performing, and the only one we can afford within the current space program budget.”

But Paul Spudis, the senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, argued for a series of “incremental building blocks” all the way to Mars, beginning on the surface of the Moon. Aside from its scientific and training value, he says, water and other lunar resources can “break the logistical chains” that would otherwise tie deep-space human explorers to Earth.

“The gold is at the poles and it's in the form of water, which is the most useful commodity you can have to create capability in spaceflight,” he says.

NASA essentially dropped its historic decision to end the Constellation program like a bomb, offering little justification for its plan to support developing commercial U.S. cargo and crew vehicles to reach low Earth orbit instead. That triggered an often-acrimonious debate leading to the “compromise” policy of today, with NASA continuing the Orion crew capsule begun under Constellation, and developing the heavy-lift Space Launch System, while contributing development funds on three commercial crew vehicles.

Doug Cooke, a former NASA associate administrator with long experience in human spaceflight, joined Smith in criticizing the agency for the way it handled the decision to pursue asteroid-capture, and in urging a more open approach to policymaking.

“I think that a healthy process gets inputs from your stakeholders in terms of your objectives and long-term goals, and that helps you define what missions are,” Cooke says. “I don't see that that's happened here.”

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