The last few weeks have seen a variety of views about the future of NASA, in particular its human spaceflight programs. There is little consensus in these opinions, beyond a belief that the agency’s current direction, in particular the goal laid out by President Obama of a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025, is somehow unsatisfactory. That was a particular point of emphasis in the National Research Council’s recent report on NASA’s strategic direction. “Despite isolated pockets of support for a human asteroid mission, the committee did not detect broad support for an asteroid mission inside NASA, in the nation as a whole, or from the international community,” the report stated.
Another voice joining this chorus also sees issues with NASA’s asteroid mission plans, but has a different alternative in mind. “I’m excited about that because I’m a planetary scientist who loves asteroids,” said former astronaut Tom Jones of those current plans during a talk on Monday at the National Air and Space Museum, part of an ongoing series called the Space Policy and History Forum. He said, though, that those current plans appeared to be just a “default” position by the administration when it rejected previous plans for a human return to the Moon. “Today, in 2012, we’re not making very rapid progress to get people to an asteroid. The Space Launch System and Orion are not maturing rapidly enough to start missions to asteroids in 2025. So, maybe, five years after that we’ll do the first one.”
A key issue he identified for any human missions beyond Earth, be it Moon, Mars, or asteroids, is funding. “With a flat budget I don’t see how NASA pulls together even these scrabbled-together resources to do this over the next ten years,” he said, referring to proposals to develop an outpost at the Earth-Moon L2 point, perhaps using repurposed space station components. “There’s going to have to be some kind of promise of a return on investment, some kind of cash to be made for the country, increasing national wealth, from operating from beyond low Earth orbit.”
Jones, who emphasized that he was speaking only for himself, offered his own “modest proposal” for an alternative approach that combined elements of lunar and asteroid mission. “I think what we ought to do is to take these next ten years and reorient NASA to early access to space resources, with NASA as the instrument that then demonstrates commercial potential via lunar robotic and near Earth asteroid sampling,” he said.
A key difference between his proposal and the current NASA mission is that rather than send humans out to a near Earth asteroid, NASA would instead send the asteroid to astronauts in cislunar space. He cited a study by the Keck Institute of Space Studies on the feasibility of an “asteroid retrieval” mission that showed how a robotic mission could capture a 500-ton asteroid and move it into high lunar orbit. Once in lunar orbit, astronauts could then easily visit it to both study it and perhaps even work to extract resources, notably water ice and other volatiles, that would have value for other space activities.
“Why would we want to bring a rock back towards our planet?” he asked. “It’s a great destination for humans to use their talents and skills.” Such a mission would have a variety of roles, from offering a stepping stone for later human exploration missions to testing techniques for planetary defense. “It’s the only way humans are going to get to an asteroid by the mid-2020s.”
That mission would be part of a broader architecture that includes demonstrations of deep space exploration systems and material processing technologies on the ISS, robotic landers and rovers on the Moon (including commercial efforts being developed as part of the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition), and possibly lunar sample return missions, where robotic landers place samples in orbit for return to Earth on crewed Orion missions.
A key element of this approach, he said, would be the commercial exploitation of lunar and asteroid resources. A typical 500-ton asteroid, he noted, would have about 200 tons of water ice and other volatiles. “NASA guarantees that they’ll purchase tons of propellant from a provider from this object or others that are recovered,” he said. “You get commercial delivery of that water to lower the cost of deep space operations for people and robots.” That would eventually lead, he said, “to an economic expansion into cislunar space, where raw materials and solar energy are available, people are involved, commercial companies are involved, getting their own material by duplicating that initial demo that NASA did.”
Asked to summarize his concept in an elevator pitch, Jones offered a one-sentence explanation: “Make money in space and protect the planet at the same time.”
Would such an approach, though, put NASA in competition with companies like Planetary Resources (for whom Jones is an advisor) that are interested in extracting asteroid resources on their own? “I applaud that kind of innovation and spirit,” Jones said. “The danger to them is that they lose their shirts” if they fail. “NASA risks becoming irrelevant if they don’t get into this realm.”