NEO, The Moon and Mars.

NASA’s in a real pickle at the moment. After having their budget repeatedly slashed year after year by various governments looking to save a few dollars and the scope of their works ever increasing they’re now faced with the challenge of choosing their future direction. A white house panel recently convened on the subject and had several proposals put forth, half of them requiring a cash injection to the beleaguered agency to the tune of $3 billion a year. It would seem the idea of visiting a Near Earth Object (NEO) has gained some traction recently:

BOULDER, Colo. – Call it Operation: Plymouth Rock. A plan to send a crew of astronauts to an asteroid is gaining momentum, both within NASA and industry circles.

Not only would the deep space sojourn shake out hardware, it would also build confidence in long-duration stints at the moon and Mars. At the same time, the trek would sharpen skills to deal with a future space rock found on a collision course with Earth.

In Lockheed Martin briefing charts, the mission has been dubbed “Plymouth Rock – An Early Human Asteroid Mission Using Orion.” Lockheed is the builder of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the capsule-based replacement for the space shuttle.

If they are to follow such a plan (assuming it came from the white house panel’s proposals) it does have some interesting consequences for NASA. First of all it’s one of the more expensive options, meaning that their budget would need to be increased to cope with it. Secondly it would see the shuttle program extended for another year delaying its retirement until 2011. It would also see NASA divert their focus from the shuttle replacement Ares-I in favour of using commercial options like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, only relying on their launch capabilities as a backup. The last, and probably most important aspect, would be that America would no longer cease its involvement in the International Space Station in 2015, instead continuing until 2020. All of these points show a shift from traditional NASA thinking and it has me wondering where the push is coming from.

In all honesty visiting a NEO would make for an interesting mission. It would be a long duration flight of around 6 months with a maximum of a couple weeks spent actually in and around the object in question. The real benefit of such a mission isn’t so much in the science we can do at the asteroid (we’ve already done that) but in the verification that the new hardware is capable of such long duration flights. It’s definitely a step forward in terms of capability, but will it really serve as the stepping stone for manned missions to Mars and beyond?

Buzz Aldrin thinks not, and he’s been an advocate for NASA to focus on going directly to Mars for quite some time. His plan does seem incredibly sensible to me as collaborating with other space faring nations whilst pushing the envelope in terms of deep space exploration means that NASA can get the best of both worlds. I’m sure that Roscosmos and the ESA would jump at the opportunity to establish a presence on the moon as they did with the ISS. The main issue that Buzz hits on quite succinctly is that NASA should be actively seeking collaboration from international partners for projects such as a moon base as these have significant scientific benefits. It would be hard to justify it as a stepping stone to Mars and beyond, but as an international effort it almost looks like a no-brain-er.

It’s a troubling time for NASA as they’ve been presented with a whole swath of options and are faced with the hard choice of cutting back on their core programs or attempting the next-to-impossible by squeezing more cash out of congress. The next year will see many changes happen with the impending retirement of the shuttle and the realization of fully private launch capabilities so we can rest assured that NASA’s future won’t be in question for much longer.

I just wish they’d make up their minds about the shuttle so I can plan my trip over there to see the last shuttle launch 😉

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  1. I think they better just fire robotic and biotic critter cannon on an asteroid and from there perhaps create a touring/monitoring  system and possibly find w/c biotic forms survive.

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