Commentary: Why an asteroid mission can wait and the Moon can’t
It’s like something out of a science fiction novel. A spaceship approaches an asteroid, unfurls a gigantic umbrella, snares the giant tumbling rock, and hauls it away.
No, this isn’t the opening of Arthur C. Clarke’s 3001: The Final Odyssey, in which “comet cowboys” snare Kuiper Belt Objects to tow to Venus to help with the Terraforming project. It’s NASA’s real-life plan to capture a near-Earth asteroid and haul it to Earth.
January 8, 2010 is a date that lives in infamy for many space aficionados—it was the day President Obama canceled the Constellation Program, the ambitious “Apollo on Steroids” mission to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and establish a base. Seven years along, $9 billion out of the taxpayers’ wallets, and poof!, the program evaporated in a single, unannounced political move that raised the ire of scientists, engineers, astronauts, and ordinary citizens across the country.
For three years afterwards, the new direction of NASA’s manned space program was nebulous – at best. Where were we going? And why? And most importantly, in what? The Altair lunar lander and the Ares rockets were dead, but Congress wouldn’t stand for the cancellation of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. So under the 2011 budget, the Space Launch System emerged—a new rocket which would launch what is now called the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle on missions beyond Earth orbit.
At first President Obama talked about eventual missions to orbit asteroids or to orbit Mars. Needless to say, such vague and uninspiring missions failed to garner much enthusiasm.
But despite rising sentiment in the scientific and space community to focus NASA’s objectives back to the Moon, in 2013 the President announced an ambitious new direction for the Space Launch System—to capture a near-Earth asteroid and bring it into lunar orbit for study.
There are many reasons to study near-Earth objects—the most obvious being the danger of the Earth being struck by one. Analysis of the rocks, soil, and ice of a near-Earth asteroid will, among other things, provide clues to the frequency of asteroidal impacts on Earth. It will also prove (or disprove) the desirability of asteroid mining in the future. A near-Earth asteroid could serve as a staging post for harvesting of new minerals, construction and launching of new spacecraft, and provide a permanent human presence off the Earth—as opposed to the International Space Station, which is currently scheduled to be de-orbited in 2028 (though its lifespan could be extended and alternatively there are timelines where the ISS can be deorbited as early as 2020).
But is it really necessary to bring an asteroid to Earth to accomplish these goals?
The study of near-Earth objects is important, but if the goal is to protect the Earth against impacts, one would think an asteroid deflection program would be more useful than an asteroid attraction program. In fact, considering the number of near-misses our planet has endured in the past few years (including the high-profile Chelyabinsk impact in Russia on February 15, 2013 and the close pass of Asteroid 2012 DA14 on the same day) bringing an asteroid into our backyard is likely to be a tough sell to the average taxpayer. One has only to recall the failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999, Mars Polar Lander also in 1999—or the tragic Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters—to know that NASA is not infallible. One miscalculation and the already troubled space agency may be responsible for the destruction of a town or a city.
Meanwhile, there is already a giant planetoid orbiting our planet and presenting itself for our use—it’s called the Moon. Rather than building an entire expensive space architecture on a high-stakes, risky venture to fly out into interplanetary space, capture and asteroid and bring it to Earth, why not do what we’ve done before—send our astronauts to our nearby natural satellite? The Moon provides all the benefits that an orbiting asteroid would— plus much, much more.
In recent years the Moon has once again entered the crosshairs of scientific study. Analysis of the Apollo 15 moonrocks, as well as observations by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, has revealed the presence of liquid water on the Moon, an unexpected benefit for anyone wishing to establish a base there. China’s Chang’e 3 spacecraft landed on the Moon on December 14, 2013 and deployed China’s first unmanned rover on the lunar surface.
With a large natural satellite circling our planet every day, only three days away, which we have already visited and have the technology to return to, which is at the center of the world’s attention, now known to have water, a mission to capture an asteroid seems rather like a political stunt to provide an objective to justify Obama’s “anywhere but the Moon” philosophy. In fact, considering China and other nation’s interest in the Moon, the practicality of returning to the place we’ve been before and know a great deal about, and the relative ease with which a return to the Moon could be done, especially after all the research that went into the Constellation program, the asteroid mission actually seems rather silly.
Finally, with little concrete justification and likely a lot of public skittishness about the idea of having a killer rock from space right above our heads, the asteroid capture mission is quite likely to be cancelled, and with politicians like Bill Posey, Rob Bishop, and even Newt Gingrich pushing for a return to the Moon, the asteroid mission takes on the feel of no more than political bull-headedness.
The preceding is comprised of the opinion’s of the author and does not necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group.
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles.
In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.