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NASA’s mission improbable

By Joel Achenbach
The Washington Post
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NASA is looking for a rock. It has to be out there somewhere – a small asteroid circling the sun and passing close to Earth. It can’t be too big or too small. Something 20 to 30 feet in diameter would work. It can’t be spinning too rapidly, or tumbling knees over elbows. It can’t be a speed demon. And it shouldn’t be a heap of loose material, like a rubble pile.

The rock, if it can be found, would be the target for what NASA calls the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Almost out of nowhere, the program has emerged as a central element of NASA’s human spaceflight strategy for the next decade. Rarely has the agency proposed an idea so controversial among lawmakers, so fraught with technical and scientific uncertainties, and so hard to explain to ordinary people.

The mission, which could cost upward of $2 billion, would use a robotic spacecraft to snag the small rock and haul it into a stable orbit around the moon. Then, according to NASA’s plan, astronauts would blast off in a new space capsule atop a new jumbo rocket, fly toward the moon, go into lunar orbit and rendezvous with the robotic spacecraft and the captured rock. They’d put on spacewalking suits, clamber out of the capsule and examine the rock in its bag, taking samples. This ideally would happen, NASA has said, in 2021.

“That’s our plan,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s top official for space technology. “We have to merge it with reality.”

Plans, goals, dreams and technological realities are difficult to sort through these days at NASA. Apart from the asteroid mission, the human spaceflight program has few attainable destinations in the near term. Astronauts in 2021 may simply orbit the moon and come home, a significant feat, but one the agency first achieved in December 1968. Or they could fly to a gravitationally stable point in space beyond the moon, a potential base for future operations.

Fallback plans

NASA has what might be called middle-age problems. Founded 55 years ago, America’s civilian space agency had its greatest glory in its youth, with the moon shots, and it retains much engineering talent and lofty aspirations. But even as the agency talks of expanding civilization throughout the solar system, it has been forced to recognize its limitations.

Flat budgets have become declining budgets. The joke among agency officials is that, when it comes to budgets, flat is the new up.

NASA lacks the money and technology to do what it long has dreamed of doing, which is to send astronauts to Mars and bring them safely back to Earth. It has resorted to fallback plans, and to fallbacks to the fallbacks.

Thus was born this improbable Asteroid Redirect Mission.

The human spaceflight program has long been searching for a mission beyond Low Earth Orbit. That’s where NASA has been sending astronauts since the 1970s, and where the underappreciated International Space Station circles the planet, currently occupied by two Americans, three Russians and an Italian.

A new adventure

The asteroid mission not only goes beyond LEO, it scratches many other itches. NASA has marketed this as planetary defense – a way to get the upper hand on asteroids that potentially could smash into Earth. The agency also has said this could boost the commercial mining of asteroids for their minerals, thus expanding humanity’s economic zone. And the robotic part of the proposal involves new propulsion technology that NASA thinks could be crucial for an eventual human mission to Mars.

There are also political factors. President Barack Obama vowed in 2010 to send humans to an asteroid. NASA officials have said this mission meets that goal.

Most important, the ensnared asteroid would provide a destination beyond LEO for new, expensive hardware that NASA is already building: the big rocket called the Space Launch System and the Orion crew capsule. The mission could deflect accusations that the government is building rocket ships to nowhere.

“It is really an elegant bringing together of our exciting human spaceflight plan, scientific interest, being able to protect our planet, and utilizing the technology we had invested in and were already investing in,” said Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator.

Shadowed by doubts

The mission is viewed skeptically by many in the space community. At a July gathering of engineers and scientists at the National Academy of Sciences, veteran engineer Gentry Lee expressed doubt that the complicated elements of the mission could come together by 2021 and said the many uncertainties would boost costs.

“I’m trying very, very hard to look at the positive side of this, or what I would call the possible positive side,” he said.

“It’s basically wishful thinking in a lot of ways – that there’s a suitable target, that you can find it in time, that you can actually catch it if you go there and bring it back,” said Al Harris, a retired NASA planetary scientist who specializes in asteroids.

“Of course, there’s always luck. But how much money do you want to spend on a chance discovery that might have a very low probability?” said Mark Sykes, a planetary scientist who chairs a NASA advisory group on asteroids.

If the target rock isn’t scoped out well in advance, it could even turn out, on close inspection, to be something other than a small asteroid: say, a spent Russian rocket casing that’s footloose around the sun.

NASA officials understand this and have recently been floating a different scenario, a Plan B. Instead of the robotic spacecraft trying to nab a small, little-understood and potentially unruly rock, the spacecraft could travel to a much larger, already-discovered asteroid and break off a chunk to bring back to lunar orbit, where astronauts would visit it.

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