The Washington Post published an interview yesterday with NASA administrator Charles Bolden, primarily discussing leadership issues Bolden has faced in his four years at the top of the agency. Towards the end, though, the Post asks Bolden about NASA’s plans to direct an asteroid, in particular asking if that plan meets the goal established by President Obama in his 2010 Kennedy Space Center speech of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025. The answer is worth excerpting in full:
Does the asteroid redirect mission, in which you send an astronaut to one that’s in lunar orbit, fulfill President Obama’s goal of going to an asteroid in 2025?
My answer is going to be flaky. The first segment we’ve got to do. We’ve got to identify and characterize many more asteroids than we have done so far. That’s essential for the protection of the planet. That’s critical.
The second segment, which is the redirect mission—it’s a robotic mission, it doesn’t involve humans at all—that’s really necessary for us to develop the technologies that we need to advance exploration. Is it absolutely necessary before you send humans to Mars to do that? No, but it sure would be nice to have all that risk brought down because you’ve done it with the asteroid redirect mission. If that’s successful and then we can get humans to an asteroid in lunar orbit, that more than fulfills my understanding of the president’s direction.
And this is subtle. I have this discussion with my science friends all the time and those who are purist. The president said by 2025 we should send humans to an asteroid. What he meant was, you should send humans to somewhere between Mars and Saturn, because that’s where the dominant asteroids in the asteroid belt are. But no, he didn’t say that. He said: humans to an asteroid.
There are a lot of different ways to do that. There are probably thousands of ways to do it. I think we have come up with the most practical way, given our budgetary constraints today. We’re bringing the asteroid to us.
And so whether I put an astronaut on an asteroid that’s in lunar orbit or put an astronaut on an asteroid that’s still in orbit around the sun between Mars and Jupiter, I don’t care. What’s important is: Have them there.
Bolden’s claim that President Obama meant “you should send humans to somewhere between Mars and Saturn, because that’s where the dominant asteroids in the asteroid belt are” is sure to raise more than a few eyebrows. It’s unlikely the president meant, or many interpreted him as meaning, that humans should go to the main belt (between Mars and Jupiter, not Saturn), a mission that would rival a Mars mission in its length and level of risk. Instead, the assumption was that NASA would send humans to a near Earth asteroid, a mission that could be accomplished on round trips of a year or less, depending on the specific mission.
In any case, Bolden argues that sending humans to an asteroid redirected into lunar orbit satisfies the goal in the president’s 2010 speech of humans to an asteroid, and helps buy down the risk for future humans Mars missions given current budget constraints. But even that is not universally accepted (perhaps a hint to the discussions he says he has “with my science friends… and those who are purist.”) For example, earlier this year, speaking at a meeting of the National Academies committee on human spaceflight, Steve Squyres noted that the president’s 2010 speech called for sending humans “beyond the Moon” to an asteroid in deep space, something that a mission to a very small asteroid redirected into lunar orbit would not appear to strictly satisfy.