A May 10 article in The Daily News informed readers about a surprising new proposed NASA mission to identify a small nonthreatening near-earth asteroid (NEA) and send a robotic spacecraft to rendezvous with the asteroid and grab it, and reposition it into a stable, non-Earth-threatening trans-lunar (beyond the Moon) orbit in the Earth-Moon system.

The mission would then send astronauts to the asteroid by 2025, in part to retrieve a big sample.

This was part of President Obama’s proposed NASA fiscal 2014 budget. The robotic spacecraft will include high-powered solar-electric power propulsion.  

“Many of the technical details are yet to be determined, but essentially it allows us to meet the president’s goal of reaching an asteroid by 2025,” NASA headquarters spokeswoman Rachel Kraft said.

“The mission will also teach us a lot of information that we need to get to Mars ... We will redirect it to a stable orbit in trans-lunar space. Some of our folks have been calling it a deep retrograde orbit (a function of the orbit’s angle of inclination). This is basically an orbit where the asteroid would be stable, so we are not in danger of it going toward Earth or being dislodged. It would stay in that system and make it possible for humans to visit.”

Part of the logic behind this is this initiative allows NASA to align ongoing activities across several directorates, human exploration and operations led by William Gerstenmaier; space technology led by Michael Gazarik and NASA’s science mission directorate led by John Grunsfeld, Kraft said.

“We are essentially enhancing and leveraging existing efforts and capabilities to identify and characterize the asteroid and then redirect and eventually visit it,” Kraft said. “It takes advantage of a large swath of NASA expertise.”

Let’s review and speculate about how NASA settled on this novel mission.

NASA’s Constellation fleet of vehicles for lunar exploration was canceled in February 2010, citing cost and being too lunar-centric. Then in April 2010, the Orion capsule was revived, now called the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

NASA is now working on the design of a big new rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS).

Since 2010, NASA has been following a flexible path to send people to Mars.

That path comes from President Obama’s Augustine Committee. They specified that path as an option if NASA’s budget were increased by $3 billion per year. NASA never obtained that budget increase.

In April 2010, President Obama selected an astronaut rendezvous with an asteroid by 2025 as a target on the flexible path to Mars. This new 2013 NASA asteroid mission reduces danger to astronauts because mission duration will be measured in days or weeks instead of months.

The private company Planetary Resources recently announced plans to select, capture, redirect and mine a small asteroid and to make it available to NASA for study after moving it into orbit around the Moon.

The company estimated a cost of $2.6 billion. NASA now estimates it can do the new NASA asteroid mission with a lower cost.

The biggest driver for this new NASA asteroid mission is probably the incredible damage done when the unforeseen meteor broke up into meteorites in Chelyabinsk, Russia, on Feb. 15. It was an amazing coincidence because asteroid 2013 DA14 passed by close to the Earth, which is closer than some artificial Earth satellites later that same day, as predicted. The Chelyabinsk impact was the biggest Near Earth Object (NEO) impact since the 1908 incident in Tunguska, an uninhabited region of Russia.

NASA’s robotic OSIRIS-REx mission is scheduled for a 2016 launch to return a small sample from an asteroid, and the new NASA asteroid mission proposes a later but bigger sample return.

The new NASA asteroid mission proposes using SLS and Orion for the astronaut-asteroid rendezvous. One of Constellation’s biggest weaknesses was a lack of international partners to make it more affordable.

Some good news arrived via a Jan. 16 NASA announcement: a partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA). The Orion Service Module is now called the Orion ESA Service Module.

I see a bad point to this new NASA asteroid mission.

An American president can announce an 8-year NASA program such as Kennedy’s Moon shot, which was an exceptional success thanks to the Apollo program.

Announcing a 2025 goal in 2010 or even announcing a 2021 goal in 2013 does not seem likely to be successful.

On the other hand, human space programs such as NASA’s are best planned two generations in advance, assuming 30 years per generation. Current planning for NASA programs might be the best of all possible worlds.

Guest column

Douglas Yazell is an aerospace engineer who has worked in the space shuttle, international space station and the initial phases of Orion development.

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