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NASA's Proposal to Lasso an Asteroid Snares Skepticism

Courtesy NASA
NASA is proposing that it capture an asteroid with a large sack, linking the effort to future missions to Mars, but some in Congress would rather see astronauts return to the moon.

Sometime in the next decade, NASA envisions being able to send a spacecraft to snag a small asteroid passing nearby and guide it into orbit around the moon, where astronauts could fly up to study it and return samples to Earth. Agency officials say it’s a way to gain experience and develop some of the technologies it would need to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

“This experience in human spaceflight beyond low earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as solar electric propulsion, we’ll need to support human missions to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told an audience last week at a conference hosted by the group Explore Mars Inc.

For such a mission to be possible, the space agency would need the backing of Congress. Right now, some key lawmakers — mainly Republicans — don’t like the idea, and others haven’t decided.

“I think they could find better things to spend the taxpayers’ money on,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that approves NASA’s budget.

Shelby said he didn’t see the connection between capturing an asteroid and a mission to Mars, adding that maybe NASA could explain.

Virginia Republican Frank R. Wolf, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that deals with NASA, was just as skeptical of the asteroid idea. “I don’t agree with what they’re doing,” Wolf said. “There’s no vision.”

Wolf said at an Appropriations hearing in early April that the asteroid mission “does not seem to have captured imaginations among Congress ... or the American public.”

Wolf would rather see astronauts return to the moon. In fact, he wrote to President Barack Obama late last year calling for a return to the moon instead, citing competition from China, public and international interest in returning to the moon and the importance of U.S. leadership in space.

At a hearing in March, the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Republican Lamar Smith of Texas, said the asteroid mission was one that lacked a “realistic budget, without a destination and without a certain launch date.”

He said the committee had heard concerns about the mission and had heard about “promising alternatives” like a Mars and Venus flyby in 2021.

The flyby had challenges, Smith said, but “it is intriguing and would catch the public’s imagination.”

A NASA authorization bill that Smith’s committee marked up last summer would have blocked the mission, but a new bill the committee marked up this week did not. It only directed NASA to draft a blueprint for getting to Mars.

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