Spaceflight Insider

Commentary: Why an asteroid mission can wait and the Moon can’t

Photo Credit: Lloyd Behrendt / Blue Sawtooth Studio

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.

President Obama has directed NASA to retrieve an asteroid and place it into lunar orbit. Image Credit: NASA / Advanced Concepts Lab

President Obama has directed NASA to retrieve an asteroid and place it into lunar orbit. Image Credit: NASA / Advanced Concepts Lab

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.

Even though it is unlikely to take place, the concern that the asteroid retrieved for this mission could impact the Moon - or worse Earth. Image Credit: NASA / Jon Davis

Even though it is unlikely to take place, the concern that the asteroid retrieved for this mission could impact the Moon – or worse Earth. Image Credit: NASA / Jon Davis

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.

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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.

Reader Comments

Collin, an excellent commentary with which I wholeheartedly agree (which means that you are probably in for a maelstrom of vituperation from the NASA-bashing howler monkeys). Despite repeated indications from China, Russia, and the other international players that they have no interest in an asteroid mission (except, as you point out, to deflect one)the Administration doggedly, slowly presses on. With no support in the international community, little if any from academia, and certainly no groundswell of enthusiasm from the general public, perhaps this is a not-so-well-disguised straw man. If the Administration wanted to put NASA on the budget chopping block, there would be less opposition if one first dressed the straw man in an asteroid retrieval mission tuxedo.

Karol, what a delightful comment! Thank you! I wish I could have used those exact words in the article.

Collin, I agree with the above comment.
However, the current occupier of the White House has never made any secret that he wants the US to be on the bottom rung of everything. He believes we should no longer lead the World (except from the rear). Despite the boos and hisses (to be polite) that Rush L. received for saying he hoped that guy’s ideas would fail, and despite the lack of majority public support, he and his ideas have succeeded monstrously. It pains me greatly that at the very moment in history we (universally) are on the verge of making a huge leap forward in science and technical development to become a multi-planet species, we have been driven to the edge of total financial and political collapse.

Recovering Space Activist

I disagree with this in content and tone. A reasonable next lunar step is in fact being carried out by Communist China and its Chang’e 3: development of very capable unmanned lunar systems. The US is sending roving robotic laboratories to Mars, but not the Moon – why? It is easier to deliver and manage lunar robots, which could be doing a lot of good science and exploration – not to mention ground work for human visitation and habitation. The lander portion of Chang’e-3 is in fact huge – not much smaller than the LM descent stage – and obviously a new vehicle with capability for much bigger and better things later.

The US could take a smarter approach to lunar exploration, and indeed it may eventually come about commercially or semi-commercially – possibly by US companies.

The larger problem is the regrettable emphasis on Mars and the “been there, done that” attitude about the Moon, expressed so disappointingly by President Obama in 2010. If we didn’t think that way, we’d probably be at least discussing Mars rover analogs for the moon. I don’t see those in anyone’s radar scopes, although lunar missions by Communist China and others such as Russia and India, may possibly raise some new interest.

Obama, by the way, was at least straight up about his attitude about the Moon. He didn’t promise a grand vision like the previous “White House occupant”, then gave it no further support – just as his father, another “White House occupant”, had done two decades earlier. If he was serious about doing anything more than looking presidential, Bush could have pushed to raise NASA’s budget to accomplish “Apollo on Steroids” – later estimated to be an additional $3 billion a year.

Today we have the Space Launch System – an expensive, bloated execution of a Shuttle Derived Vehicle that is NASA’s response to smart ideas like DIRECT. SLS will, at the very best, fly once or possibly twice a year, and will at worst be soon canceled under its groaning bulk, before it first flies in maybe 2017 and again … in 2021, four years later. And the punchline? The thing still doesn’t have a reasonable mission. It’s simply pure pork dreamed up by several members of Congress to help them get through the remainder of their careers – who undoubtedly don’t really care what it does, where it goes, or how sustainable it is in the long-term.

SLS might have a robust lunar human mission, but as implemented this program is sucking the oxygen out of everything else, and therefore precludes even the development of things like lunar landers and habitats, let alone new enabling technologies.

Given all these considerations, the far-fetched idea of a one-off mission using the second SLS flight to explore an asteroid that a robot grabbed and dragged to lunar orbit sounds a lot more realistic today than the “Conquering the Moon” one.

Space advocates slamming their heads into the same wall in an attempt to bury them has been a recurring theme for 40-odd years now. It’s time to think of a smarter approach than “Apollo on Steroids” for lunar exploration, one in line with the realities of 2013, not 1963. The US could do wonderful things in space, and on the Moon in particular, but pork politics, Mars dreaming, and Apollo nostalgia is all we keep seeing right now.

Most commentary at least give more facts than this one and provide context. This one does not. 🙁

The commentator fails to mention that the Bush plan to get Americans to the moon was years behind schedule and budget. The commentator also fails to mention that there was a commission that looked into the space program and found even if “Apollo on Steroids” was given to NASA for free with no more development cost -NASA could not afford the program. The commentator also failed to mention the Bush plan was deorbit the ISS in 2016/2018 to free up money to go to the moon. As the commission mentioned, if you want big dreams be prepared to pay for them.

As the capture of the asteroid mission – again half truths here and there. The plan was capture a small 3 – 7 m asteroid and put into a stable orbit around the moon. The worst that could happen – it crashes into the moon. There is nothing that stops us from changing the asteroids orbit and taking into deep space or doing what ever we want. The commentator fails to explain that we do the same thing to satellites all the time.

The present administration did not push for SLS – that came from congress – The present administration wanted to fund technology development and push hard for commercial crew. Congress voted for SLS – but guess what? Congress has not put up a lot of money for its development. Even when SLS is developed – where are the operational funds?

If the commentator wants a moon mission, then please ask congress to provide the funds and provide sensible and affordable plan that may involve our international partners and commercial space

Hi Phillip,
You fail to mention the Augustine Commission had the decisions it could reach – limited. Parts of the ISS have been on orbit since 1998 & are increasingly showing signs of age. Its chief purpose these days seems to be to support “commercial” efforts.

As to the “plan” to capture an asteroid. Many would agree calling it “silly” – is being kind. There’s a reason why China, Japan, India & others have opted to go to the Moon without us. It’s due to another failure you don’t mention – the failure of leadership from the current administration. The stated policy toward lunar exploration is: “We’ve been there.” The asteroid “mission” – is a stunt at best. It’s akin to constructing a pond in front of the Atlantic Ocean.

There’s little doubt presidents & congresses stretching back to the Nixon era have placed NASA in its current state. However, you’d have us fall into the tired pattern of:”It’s all “Congress’ fault!” – when it isn’t. In fact, Congress showed rare leadership by looking at the “ObamaSpace” plan, seeing it for what it was & ensuring we didn’t place all our eggs in one basket.

I’d like to ask you not waggle your finger at the author for what you yourself are guilty of. There’s a great deal you fail to mention. Such as the president’s poor performance during his 2010 KSC trip, the preferential & disrespectful behavior he displayed there, the vague space policies his administration has put forth, the decimation of our aerospace infrastructure caused by those policies & that his efforts have caused many of the “international partners” you mention – to move away from us. Your tone is less than polite & considering you yourself are guilty of what you’re complaining about – inappropriate.
Sincerely and with kind regards, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

Phillip George–the facts you mention about the Constellation program and de-orbiting the ISS are true, but I didn’t consider them relevant to this particular article. I’d be happy to go into them sometime in the future.

As to the possibilities of an asteroid collision, I was less concerned about the actual prospects of that happening than the public perception of such a thing occurring. I’ve already heard many people, on both sides of the aisle, worrying what could go wrong with the asteroid capture plan. Valid or not, those concerns will affect the public’s willingness to fund the program.

A point very well taken about public perception and “the public’s willingness to fund the program”. Perhaps many individuals lack sufficient information as to the composition of asteroids because I don’t believe there has been a thorough, systematic assay of a representative group of asteroids. Are they really laden with gold, platinum, silver, precious minerals, gemstones, etc., or are they in the immortal words of that renowned philosopher, theologian, and metaphysician, Charlie Brown: “I got a rock.” If someone asked me to invest in a Peruvian silver mine, I would at least want to see some serious evaluations done by reputable geologists. What if we invest a substantial amount to retrieve an asteroid and it turns out to be just a common chunk of iron and nickel, of which there is plenty on Earth? Might space exploration critics, as well as justifiably concerned taxpayers, ask why did we go through all the trouble and expense of retrieving a rock when a robotic assay mission could have told us what it was before we left? Perhaps serious consideration should be given to how such a mission could impact the willingness of taxpayers to fund future NASA scientific missions. The asteroids aren’t going anywhere that can’t be explored and assayed from an established lunar base, the creation of which should be our next step into the solar system.

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