The moon in 2020 will be just as round as it is today, but if the geeks at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have their way, it won’t orbit the Earth solo. The U.S. space agency is hoping to divert a small asteroid from elsewhere in the galactic neighborhood and robotically place it into orbit around the moon. With the rock in proximity to Earth -- if a small asteroid can’t be found, NASA will hack off part of a larger one instead -- NASA intends to land astronauts on it and take samples for further scientific study. NASA claims this Asteroid Redirect Mission will build technologies and capabilities that “will help astronauts reach Mars in the 2030s.”
The idea sounds like the ultimate nerd prank (“Dude, let’s move that asteroid”) and shares about as much support from the scientific community as one, too. A lengthy report by the National Research Council issued earlier this month notes repeatedly that NASA should be focusing instead on returning to the moon itself, which has “significant advantages over other targets as an intermediate step on the road to the horizon goal of Mars.” The asteroid mission would serve only to “divert U.S. resources and attention from an eventual return to the Moon.”
Blame for the asteroid boondoggle can be laid on several presidential administrations, but it ultimately falls on President Barack Obama, who canceled the George W. Bush administration’s mission to return to the moon by 2020, saying: “We’ve been there before.” In its place, Obama proposed a series of manned missions that would slowly expand the U.S.'s presence and capability in deep space. The ARM mission, as the first such step, is intended to develop and demonstrate new deep-space skills and technologies that a Mars mission can build upon; significantly, it's also intended to launch on a pork-barrel rocket project that currently has no actual mission purpose. An asteroid visit was budgeted at $2.65 billion in a 2012 feasibility study.
On June 19 -- coincidentally, right around the time that NASA’s budget was reaching the Senate floor -- the agency issued a news release announcing the identification of nine candidate asteroids worthy of being captured (possibly utilizing a giant disposable baggie) and diverted into orbit around the moon. So far, however, the agency has failed to provide a budget estimate -- a fact that worries even supporters of the plan.
In a world where space budgets are limitless, the ARM might be worthy of support. Asteroids are artifacts of our early solar system, as well as a risk to bombard the Earth, though the mission isn’t targeting an asteroid big enough to do real damage to our planet. Equally important, an asteroid diversion would be cool -- or, in language more politic, inspiring -- and stimulate interest in the sciences among young Americans while enhancing U.S. prestige.
But that is not the fiscal universe in which NASA operates. Rather, as the National Research Council notes, NASA’s lofty goals -- specifically, Mars by 2030 -- are simply unattainable at flat budget levels. Assuming Congress is committed to giving more money to NASA, which is slated for a minor raise this year, the space agency would be better off using that money to build a permanent lunar presence that can serve as a staging area for future deep-space missions while giving Americans and international collaborators experience living on a body not their own.
Of course, all of this assumes that Americans and NASA really are united and sincere in their intent to reach Mars. Even if they’re not, eventually somebody will hopscotch their way to the red planet. And when they do, they probably won’t find a diverted space rock in their path.
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