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NASA To Send Astronauts To Asteroid Within 15 Years July 23, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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First of all, credit to Luke Parish for totally calling this in the comments of my last post.

With the space shuttle now history, NASA’s next great mission is so audacious, the agency’s best minds are wrestling with how to pull it off: Send astronauts to an asteroid in less than 15 years.

It has the dreamers of NASA both excited and anxious.

“This is a risky mission. It’s a challenging mission,” said NASA chief technology officer Bobby Braun. “It’s the kind of mission that engineers will eat up.”

This is a matter of sending “humans farther than ever before,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. It is all a stepping stone to the dream of flying astronauts to Mars in the mid 2030s.

“I think it is THE mission NASA should embrace,” said University of Tennessee aerospace professor John Muratore. “To be successful at this mission, you’ve got to embrace all of the technologies that you need for Mars.”

I’ll be honest I didn’t expect this, mainly because the impression I’ve been getting out of NASA is one of a ship lost and adrift at sea.  Their big problem for the past decade or so has been not so much a lack of skill or ingenuity but a lack of focus.  If they do put all their weight behind this mission, and according to the article this is a presidential order for what that’s worth, than this could be exactly what the space agency needs.

Firstly, landing on an asteroid is hard.  No, really hard.  In fact the word land isn’t even appropriate since the gravity is so low you’d just bounce off if you tried to.  This is the kind of challenge that sends aerospace engineers into bouts of hysteria and drives them to think of solutions they otherwise never would have imagined.  Secondly, even though it’s hard it’s not nearly as hard as the other big idea NASA has been kicking around; sending humans to Mars.  In fact in a lot of ways (timeframe, technology required, logistics) landing on an asteroid is somewhat of a practice run for getting to the red planet.  Thirdly, it’s a much better idea than establishing a base on the moon.

Personally I think the idea of a moon base is awesome but it’s not the job NASA should be doing right now.  The costs of not just setting up but of maintaining a base are way beyond NASA’s capabilities right now which makes a short term mission more appealing.  In addition there’s the simple fact that we’ve already been to the moon.  True we never set up a base their but going back will strike a lot of people as been there, done that.  An asteroid on the other hand has novelty, it has the element of exploring the unknown that can drive the public’s imagination.  Also, and perhaps most importantly, figuring out how to land on an asteroid has important implications for keeping our species alive.  Asteroids strike our planet all the time and as of right now even if we knew a big one was coming the is next to nothing we could do about it.  Landing on an asteroid would be the first step in learning how to alter it’s course.

I’ve been very down on NASA in recent months but this news cheers me up.  I’ll want to wait and see if this actually bears fruit but so far I’m excited.

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