A group of planetary scientists, former astronauts, and former NASA officials, led by the Planetary Society’s Louis Friedman, have come up with a proposal to alter the goals of President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. Instead of returning astronauts to the Moon, the group would like to send explorers Earth approaching asteroids. They presented their proposal at a recent meeting at Stanford University to evaluate the Vision for Exploration in February.
The specific proposal did not make it into the list of recommendations that the conference produced. Those recommendations were:
“It is time to go beyond LEO with people as explorers. The purpose of sustained human exploration is to go to Mars and beyond. The significance of the Moon and other intermediate destinations is to serve as steppingstones on the path to that goal.
“Bringing together scientists, astronauts, engineers, policy analysts, and industry executives in a single conversation created an environment where insights across traditional boundaries occurred.
“Human space exploration is undertaken to serve national and international interests. It provides important opportunities to advance science, but science is not the primary motivation.
“Sustained human exploration requires enhanced international collaboration and offers the United States an opportunity for global leadership.
“NASA has not received the budget increases to support the mandated human exploration program as well as other vital parts of the NASA portfolio, including space science, aeronautics, technology requirements, and especially Earth observations, given the urgency of global climate change.
“Additional recommendations will be provided by the organizers and participants in this workshop. “Pretty innocuous, as far as they go. But the idea of dumping the Moon in favor of an asteroid does bare closer examination.
Proponents of this change contend that missions to Earth approaching asteroids are a better precursor for human missions to Mars than a lunar return. They believe that scientific exploration of Earth approaching asteroids will have benefits on Earth. This is especially the case when one considers the possibility of such an object colliding with the Earth such as the one that made the dinosaurs extinct.
The first reason is somewhat dubious. The second has merit and there is one other good reason for exploring Earth approaching asteroids that was not stated by this group.
Proponents of a return to the Moon, while pointing out both the scientific and commercial merit of lunar settlements, also maintain that it is the best way to learn how to explore Mars. Mars explorers will have to live on the Martian surface for months, even years at a time. The best way to learn how to do that would seem to be to practice on the lunar surface, a scant three day trip away as opposed to the months long journey to Mars.
The scientific rationale for exploring Earth approaching asteroids is a reasonable one. But there is also a commercial rationale. Two types of asteroids, nickel iron and carbonaceous chondrite, would be suitable for commercial mining. Nickel iron asteroids contain a great deal of metals, Carbonaceous chondrite asteroids contain water and organic materials. Mining both types of asteroid would yield useful resources for future space settlers.
The idea of substituting a visit to Earth approaching asteroids for a return to the Moon is probably a nonstarter. A heated argument over destinations might cause enough political gridlock to foreclose any human exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit.
Still, doing expeditions to Earth approaching asteroids in addition to returning to the Moon has its attractions. There are a couple of ways to do that.
One way would be to simply appropriate more money to the Vision for Space Exploration to allow for such expeditions. The problem, of course, is that it would likely take a full court push by the next President and the Congress to raise the funds. It’s possible, but will likely be difficult.
The other way to send explorers to a Near Earth asteroid would be to offer up a prize. Let us suppose that a billion dollars were offered to the first group to successfully visit and prospect an Earth approaching asteroid. As a sweetener, an internationally recognized ownership of the asteroid could be thrown in, which could be worth tens of billions of dollars. Perhaps a secondary prize could be offered for the first group to divert an asteroid, either into a safe, stable orbit around the Earth or away from the Earth.
Prizes are nothing new, even in the space age. The X Prize foundation awarded ten million dollars to Scaled Composites for the first private space craft to fly successive sub orbital missions. The X Prize foundation is currently offering fifty million dollars for the first private group to land a unmanned probe on the lunar surface.
Even NASA has gotten into the act with the Centennial Challenges, which has offered cash prizes for everything from improved space suit gloves to space elevator prototypes. Some, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich, have even suggested immense prizes for private lunar bases and private expeditions to Mars.
Starting a political fight over destinations would be a self defeating gesture. But, with a little creative thinking, explorers can return to the Moon and go to Earth approaching asteroids, before going on to Mars. Everyone wins and the outbreak of humanity beyond low Earth orbit will be strengthened thereby.
Sources: Space Leaders Work to Replace Lunar Base With Manned Asteroid Missions, Craig Couvalt, Aviation Week,January 18th, 2008
Space Experts Say: Restore Funding and Enhance International Outreach to Put Humans on Mars While Sustaining NASA’s Science Mission, The Planetary Society, February 14th, 2008
The First Great Deep Space Expedition: Sending the Orion to an Asteroid, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, November 29th, 2006