NASA chief: Visiting an asteroid is all agency can afford


A NASA plan to send astronauts to an asteroid was met with skepticism Wednesday when NASA Chief Charlie Bolden presented the idea to top space officials in Congress - though their doubts may not be enough to sink the program.

The asteroid mission, unveiled a few weeks ago, would send a NASA probe to capture a small asteroid and drag it to a point near the moon so astronauts riding a and capsule could visit it, possibly as soon as 2021.

"The goal is (to) remain the world's leader in exploration," Bolden said. But members of the U.S. House science committee took issue with the project's cost and feasibility - and questioned why the agency wasn't planning a return to the moon en route to an eventual mission to Mars.

The delivered a blunt reply: It's all NASA can afford.

"I need money to go to the moon," Bolden said.

As part of its 2014 , the White House wants NASA to spend $105 million next year to begin planning the asteroid mission, which could cost upward of $2.6 billion.

Broadly, the administration envisions sending a probe as soon as 2017 to capture a 25-foot, 500-ton asteroid and tug it near the moon - possibly to a spot about 277,000 miles from Earth that would use competing to allow it to "sit" there.

Astronauts flying NASA's new and Space rocket then would visit it to take samples and possibly set foot on its surface.

In addition to scientific benefits, Bolden said an asteroid trip would serve as a steppingstone for an eventual while also teaching how to divert an asteroid in case one ever threatened Earth. He called it "an unprecedented technological challenge."

Lawmakers, however, wanted to know whether NASA would learn more - and do more - by going back to the moon instead.

"Would (a ) be a better precursor to a Mars mission?" asked U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who chairs the science committee.

Bolden replied that "both are good" but that an asteroid mission was the only program affordable under his proposed 2014 budget of $17.7 billion.

"Going to the moon is a factor of three (times) more expensive," Bolden said.

NASA is spending about $3 billion annually to develop the Orion capsule and SLS rocket, and construction of landers and other lunar equipment would add billions of dollars to that.

Not every member of the committee, however, was critical. U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said an asteroid mission was a "good direction to go."

And as yet, there's no major opposition in the U.S. Senate, which could help clear the way for the idea to become reality.

At a hearing Tuesday, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., reiterated support for the White House proposal, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas - a fiery freshman who rarely misses a chance to criticize the administration - held his fire.

The lack of resistance is tied to Senate support of the System. Senators from key NASA states - Florida, Texas and Alabama - pushed President Barack Obama to build it, and the asteroid mission is seen as a way to give purpose to the rocket, once criticized as a "rocket to nowhere."

Illustrative of that point was the initial reaction of Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

"NASA should continue to explore the universe and challenge scientific and technical boundaries," he said in a statement. "However, NASA should maintain focus on its core mission and continue development of the Space Launch System so that it will be ready for any future NASA mission."

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User comments

Apr 24, 2013
That is part of the number one agenda item for NASA as personally given to Bolden by Obama himself - raise the self-esteem of Muslims, for their huge scientific contributions to civilization.

Oh, wait...

Apr 25, 2013
Is Islamaphobia allowed on this site. Gratuitous comments.

Apr 25, 2013
Muslims, for their huge scientific contributions to civilization

This isn't really the place to discuss modern politics, but as for science history:

If you look back at the origins of what we call science today, the middle east was certainly the birthplace. Egypt, Mesopotamia, Pythagoreans, Greeks, etc. were all closely related by geography and traded ideas by way of sea trade.

Apr 27, 2013
Set "foot" on a 25 foot asteroid? Huh? It's really sad that we can spend billions a year on spectator sports but we can't seem to put a coherent plan together to get back to the moon or travel to Mars. When was the last time we really had astronauts? Oh yeah ... that was back in the 60's and early 70's. With respect to manned space exploration, what have we done? Oh yeah ... exactly nothing. And now we want to set foot on a boulder. Wow.

Apr 28, 2013
Set "foot" on a 25 foot asteroid? Huh? It's really sad...

Agreed. This seems like a complete waste of limited resources. We don't need to haul an asteroid into moon orbit to test Orion or SLS, and unless they bring back living bacteria I have serious doubts about the gainful merits of a sample return mission from an asteroid. This nonsense about learning how to manipulate future asteroid threats by using a method that is only effective on asteroids that aren't a threat to our population kind of irks me too.

I also don't like the idea of another ISS-like facility on the far side of the moon. Why do that rather than land some stuff ON the moon? Because it takes a little more fuel to get back? Well hell, maybe we should see if we can make it in situ at an intelligent landing site. Or maybe we could step up the timeline to the full cargo variant of the SLS for a worthy mission. Or just save for a rainy day. I don't like any of the new "big" ideas getting play right now.

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