I recently received a press release about an upcoming Science Channel special titled Man vs. the Universe. One episode will focus on the threat of asteroids impacting Earth and the various scenarios proposed to defend ourselves. The episode ends, the release says, with a segment about “the craziest NASA mission ever proposed.” The aim is to capture an asteroid in deep space with a giant bag and transport it into orbit around the moon for astronauts to study.
In this issue, Meghan Rosen provides an in-depth report on that mission, but without the erroneous conclusion that the Asteroid Redirect Mission has much to do with asteroid defense. It’s easy to see why the release writers got confused, though. According to NASA, the mission is really about Mars.
The truth may be a bit less lofty. As Rosen explains, this proposal comes from the human exploration arm of the space agency, which is struggling to find direction now that the space shuttles are sitting in museums and the International Space Station, some 220 miles up, is as far as astronauts regularly venture. Going to Mars, of course, would be a stupendous achievement of engineering and imagination. Like the moon landings, it would serve as a powerful symbol of American (and human) prowess. But given all of the unsolved technical challenges, a human mission to Mars is still at best decades away. If NASA is ever to attempt sucha journey, it needs to maintain its human spaceflight capabilities. To do that in an era of limited resources, you also need a wow factor. Meet the Asteroid Redirect Mission.
Still, many observers see limited scientific value in a mission that would send humans to do what other asteroid missions (including one from NASA) are doing with robots. (Robotic missions, after all, are nothing to scoff at. Think of Curiosity or the Voyager probes.) OK, critics say, we need to keep our astronauts and engineers busy. Considering the expense, though, shouldn’t a human mission also move science forward in a dramatic way?
Probably. But you could also argue that human spaceflight was never really about science — it’s about exploration and challenging the limits of technology. And that’s what capturing an asteroid is really all about.