NASA Mission to a NEO: Bad Idea

Illustration for article titled NASA Mission to a NEO: Bad Idea

Ever since the Columbia disaster, NASA's been hurting for some good press in the crewed spaceflight program. Agency scientists think they have the answer — sending a crewed mission to a Near Earth Object (NEO) once the new Orion spacecraft begins missions in 2015. What are they thinking?! It's hard to imagine a worse approach to fixing a a wing of the agency that has given the public little reason to be interested or confident in its capabilities since the Columbia disaster in 2003.


It's a depressing time to work in crewed spaceflight at NASA. After the space shuttle ends its service in 2010 there figures to be a five-year hiatus before the new Orion vehicle is ready. Once that happens our grand plans for space exploration include going back to the Moon and using Orion to ferry people and supplies back and forth from the International Space Station.

Are you tingling with anticipation yet? Neither were David Korsmeyer, Rob Landis and Paul Abell, so they recently published "Into the beyond: A crewed mission to a near-Earth object" in the journal Acta Astronautica (sub required, but you can read the abstract). The mission would take humans out of the Earth-Moon system for the first time and allow field tests of technologies that could eventually be used to go to Mars.

Yawn. This type of argument smacks of compromise and half-hearted ambition. We all know that NASA's facing budget cuts, and to their credit they've done amazing things with their robotic missions around the solar system. But should the coming-out party for the next generation of human spaceflight really be a mission to a cold, dark, almost certainly lifeless pebble? There's a reason the term "Moonshot" entered the vernacular as a phrase meaning "hugely ambitious project with great risk and great reward."

If we're going to reinvigorate the exploration of space, we need a Mars-shot. I want to hear less "Well, we could find out interesting things about the evolution of our solar system if we went there," and more "We're going to Mars, bitches!"

Image: Cornell University



@Darcy: And just how much money and science would have been spent on such projects had NASA never gone to the Moon? I'd say it would be a tiny fraction of the already pitiful amount we have now. We do live in a democracy, and that means the American public needs to be convinced that going into space for any reason is a good idea. A similar rational applies to inspiring young scientist and engineers. "I want to design a more efficient communications satellite" is nowhere near as inspiring as "I want to design a Mars buggy" in convincing an 18 year old to head into aerospace engineering, despite whatever he or she may know about the relative probabilities of doing either.

The problem with arguments about "practicality" is that at a certain point, knowing about the magnetic field of Jupiter or the composition of ice on Pluto isn't really that useful either, certainly not to the average American voter. If their money is going to be spent on something, I think a lot of people would rather have something that they feel is tangible: an American standing on Mars next to an American spaceship, than a bunch of dry scientific papers they will never read and wouldn't understand if they did.

In closing, consider the single most reproduced photograph in the world. It's wasn't taken by the Hubble, it wasn't taken by LEO satellite or a rover on Mars. It was taken by a man, with a camera, standing on the Moon. That, I think, should tell you what counts as "important" in people's minds.