Bolden: Don't Have to Travel Far to Asteroid to Meet President's Goal

Bolden: Don't Have to Travel Far to Asteroid to Meet President's Goal

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told a National Research Council (NRC) committee today that meeting President Obama’s goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 does not necessarily mean they have to travel a great distance.  Although he did not raise the topic of capturing an asteroid and bringing it to the Earth-Moon vicinity as recently proposed by former astronaut Tom Jones, Bolden’s interpretation of the President’s directive could allow for that possibility.

President Obama announced that an asteroid would be the next destination for the U.S. human spaceflight program beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) on April 15, 2010 as an intermediate destination on the way to sending astronauts to orbit Mars in the 2030s.  The mission would allow NASA to study the effects of a long duration mission in space on astronauts for a duration greater than what astronauts experienced in the Apollo lunar program, but less than the time required to journey to Mars.   A human journey to Mars is expected to take about 6 months each way.  The Apollo lunar missions lasted less than 2 weeks. 

Bolden’s comments were made to an NRC committee that is charged with making recommendations on the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program.  The Committee on Human Spaceflight, co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and Cornell space scientist Jonathan Lunine, held its first meeting today.  Bolden read a statement to the committee (the text is not yet posted on the NASA website) and then answered questions posed by committee members.

Last week, former astronaut Tom Jones spoke to the Space Policy and History Forum outlining a proposal for a public-private partnership to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, capture it, and move it to cis-lunar space (the Earth-Moon system).  He is a consultant to NASA and an advisor to Planetary Resources, Inc., an organization that wants to mine asteroids, but said he was speaking only for himself.  Jones outlined how astronauts could then visit the asteroid, study it, and possibly extract resources from it.  His theme was that there is no need to send astronauts out to the asteroid when the asteroid could be brought to the astronauts.   Indeed, he said it would be the only way that astronauts could visit an asteroid by 2025 as the President directed.

The obvious question is what purpose would be served by astronauts visiting an asteroid that was relocated to cis-lunar space since Obama’s directive has been understood to mean sending astronauts on a multi-month expedition into deep space to test systems and assess human reactions to the space environment in preparation for a longer trip to Mars.

Bolden’s comment today came in response to a question about the rationale for a human trip to an asteroid.  It was not linked to Jones’s proposal, but supports the possibility that it could satisfy the President’s directive.   Bolden said that when the President announced that an asteroid would be the next destination for NASA’s human spaceflight program, he did not say NASA had to fly all the way to an asteroid.  What matters is the “ability to put humans with an asteroid,” Bolden said.

An NRC report released earlier this month concluded that sending people to an asteroid has not won wide support in NASA or the nation.  Bolden did not criticize that report directly, but said that NRC committee had only a short time to complete its study and it was done at a time of “relative silence” from NASA because of the election and did not have the benefit of the information he was presenting this morning.  The only new material he presented this morning was this information about the asteroid mission and the news that NASA will soon stand up a Space Technology Mission Directorate.

NASA’s plans for cis-lunar space became a topic of interest in September when the Orlando Sentinel published an article that NASA was considering building a small “gateway” space station at the L2 Lagrange point in the Earth-Moon system.  Bolden emphasized today that he was not suggesting that NASA was planning any human mission to a Lagrange point.  He stressed that the agency is on a “flexible path” and might have to alter its plans based on what it finds along the way.   The concept of a flexible path was first outlined in the 2009 Augustine Committee report.

The Orlando Sentinel article and the asteroid relocation mission proposed by Jones could be trial balloons or simply unrelated events.  The juxtaposition of those with Bolden’s comments today, however, underscores the fact that confusion remains about what exactly NASA is planning in the relative near term about the future of human spaceflight beyond LEO.  The NRC Committee on Human Spaceflight is tasked with making recommendations on that very topic.  Its report is expected in 2014. 

Editor’s Note:  In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the committee that produced the NRC report released earlier this month.

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