April 10, 2013
Credit: Planetary Resources
NASA spending rises to a pre-sequestration level of $17.7 billion under President Barack Obama’s proposed 2014 budget and holds steady in outyear projections, essentially casting off the current fiscal year deficit-reducing rollback to fuel an accelerated asteroid encounter by astronauts.
The spending plan also holds target dates for initiating a new U.S. commercial crew orbital transportation capability, as well as launching the James Webb Space Telescope and second Curiosity-style rover to advance Mars sample return goals — some of NASA’s most visible post-shuttle activities — in 2017, 2018 and 2020.
Embedded prominently in the spending plan forwarded to the House and Senate on April 10 is a $105 million down payment on an ambitious and yet-to-be-priced effort to identify and robotically corral a small asteroid into an orbit around the Moon in time for a 2021 visit by U.S. astronauts.
They would launch and fly aboard the new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and Space Launch System (SLS), which also are funded to hold previously established test flights dates, including the late 2014 unpiloted Orion orbital Exploration Flight Test, the unpiloted Exploration Mission-1 test flight of the SLS-MPCV combination in 2017; and the 2021 flight of Exploration Mission-2, which would place a crew aboard the SLS/MPCV combination for the first time to visit a lunar orbiting asteroid.
The mission offers new urgency for NASA’s post-shuttle ambitions to restore a human deep-space exploration capability lost as Apollo came to a close four decades ago, while beginning to equip global leaders with capabilities to fend off the collision threat posed by near-Earth asteroids. It places scientists and the commercial sector closer to the Solar System’s building blocks as well as potential resources for future space development, according to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
In 2010, Obama directed NASA to visit an asteroid by 2025, as a first step in reaching the Martian environs with explorers a decade later. “There will be naysayers all over,” Bolden acknowledged in a White House budget briefing. “As details of the mission and its concept become available, it represents an ingenious way for us to respond to a challenge the president issued to NASA,” he noted. “One of the serendipitous results from this flight, we hope, will be the ability to deflect an asteroid.”
Bolden pointed to the unanticipated Feb. 15 explosion of a small asteroid over Russia that sent more than 1,000 people to area hospitals with blast-related injuries, and the passage of the larger asteroid 2012 DA 14 within 18,000 mi. of the Earth later the same day.
NASA’s international partners reacted with interest, and some skepticism, to the asteroid-capture idea. While Japan, Germany and the European Space Agency (ESA) all have missions to asteroids and other near-Earth objects in the works, space agency chiefs attending the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs weren’t sure how it could apply to the NASA plan.
“Everything sounds very nice,” says Johann-Dietrich Woerner, head of the German Aerospace Center (DLR). “It’s a pioneering work, for sure it will have outreach, but I would ask the question ‘why’ before I would start a new project. For Germany, on the technologic basis and the scientific basis, I’m sure that we could have our part in that.”