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Plymouth Rock asteroid mission illustration
There are a number of proposals for human missions to asteroids, like Lockheed Martin’s “Plymouth Rock” concept, but is there sufficient public interest to turn those concepts into reality? (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Is a human asteroid mission a non-starter?


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Now that NASA has unveiled its heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System (SLS), in the absence of Project Constellation, many have asked what its purpose would be. When unveiling the new design, NASA did not disclose a specific mission profile. The space agency only mentioned, almost in passing, potential roles for the booster beyond low Earth orbit to a prospective asteroid destination and, of course, eventually Mars.

There must be compelling reasons for NASA to want to bypass the Moon to explore an asteroid instead. What is the attraction of asteroids in human space exploration?

There is no need to rehash the rise and fall of Project Constellation and its Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets. However, Constellation at least had an achievable goal of exploring other areas of the Moon, something that had a tremendous interest factor. The United States literally only scratched the surface of the Moon during the Apollo missions.

Considering much of NASA’s fame is due to the Apollo missions to the Moon and the glory and science that it brought America, one has to wonder why the agency finds it of little interest today, choosing instead to go to some distant point in space to rendezvous with an asteroid. And then do what, exactly?

There are a lot of brilliant people who work or consult for NASA and such a mission concept must have come about after much discussion. There must be compelling reasons for NASA to want to bypass the Moon to explore an asteroid instead. In a news conference announcing the SLS, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said, “We’re investing in technologies to live and work in space, and it sets the stage for visiting asteroids and Mars.” Note that Gen. Bolden did not mention the Moon in that statement. What is the attraction of asteroids in human space exploration?

Why asteroids?

For decades following the Apollo program, practically every new presidential administration had a blue-ribbon panel assembled to conduct an in-depth study of what America’s human spaceflight priorities should be and how they should best be achieved. None that I can recall recommended a mission to an asteroid as something that would be a worthy goal.

When the Obama Administration effectively cancelled project Constellation after receiving the Augustine Committee’s final report regarding, in part, the projected costs of the Constellation program and estimated funding shortfalls, many were caught completely by surprise. In May of 2010, a month after Obama described America’s new direction in space exploration in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on the subject. Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong was one of those who spoke before the committee members, and he revealed what he suspected was really behind the sweeping changes in priorities.

While such a mission, if it is funded, is years away, what will the American people think of such a mission?

“I have yet to find a person in NASA, the Defense Department, the Air Force, the National Academies, industry, or academia that had any knowledge of the plan prior to its announcement,” Armstrong told the committee. “A plan that was invisible to so many was likely contrived by a very small group in secret who persuaded the president that this was a unique opportunity to put his stamp on a new and innovative program.”

How the Constellation program was effectively ended and new human exploration goals promulgated is beyond the scope of this commentary, but the Moon was no longer an exploration goal of the United States. Much more distant destinations were promoted by the president.

“By 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space,” the president said in April 2010. “We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.”

What motivation would the United States have in a crewed mission to an asteroid? Several ideas included studying the asteroid to learn means of deflecting a future near-Earth object to save the inhabitants of this planet, far-fetched Hollywood scenarios notwithstanding. More pragmatic ideas included studying the composition of the asteroid, which could hold keys to the creation of the solar system.

Non-lunar training

In any event, an asteroid as a destination of human exploration is now on NASA’s manifest, if you will. NASA’s associate sdministrator for human exploration, William Gerstenmaier, was recently quoted in the New York Times saying, “We’ve talked conceptually about multiple destinations. We talk about an asteroid in 2025. We talk about Mars being the ultimate destination.”

This change is reflected in the training missions taking place at the Black Point Lava Flow in the Arizona desert conducted by NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies, known as the Desert RATS. Four different asteroid mission scenarios are being explored. Among the tests being conducted involve communication delays between the Earth and the crew at an asteroid. Fifty seconds between transmissions is the norm in these training sessions. One of vehicles originally developed for lunar exploration has been modified to simulate a flying platform instead.

The destinations of future astronauts must be compelling because they will cost billions of dollars to reach. However, an asteroid may not hold enough attraction to make such a mission a reality.

While such a mission, if it is funded, is years away, what will the American people think of such a mission? After the euphoric high of the Apollo 11 mission, interest in lunar exploration among Americans began declining almost immediately. It took a severe blow after Apollo 13, and Congress began looking to cut funding for the proposed Apollo 18, 19, and 20 missions; these last three missions were, in fact, cancelled. How could a crewed mission that requires months in space travel to a non-descript asteroid possibly capture Americans’ imagination?

A crewed mission to orbit Mars certainly holds fascination but there are technological, physiological, and psychological factors that must be overcome to achieve such a mission. First, a mission to Mars must have advanced propulsion technology to reduce the travel time to the Red Planet from the one to two years that it would take using current technology. For the crew to be confined to a capsule hardly much larger than that of Apollo for such a time is inhumane and impractical. What does the crew do while it is waiting for months or years to reach its destination? The amount of water and food to sustain a four-person crew is also a serious factor. Long-term exposure to intense radiation must also be addressed.

The desire to achieve these exploration goals stems from humanity’s desire to explore. It also stems from America’s desire to maintain its leadership in space exploration. However, the day when America did it alone has long passed. The destinations of future astronauts must be compelling because they will cost billions of dollars to reach. However, an asteroid may not hold enough attraction to make such a mission a reality.


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