Machine Design

NASA pencil whips goals to meet budgets

It looks like NASA managers are mangling the concepts of setting goals and facing budgetary realities if reports about a future mission are to be believed. Some time ago, NASA decided on sending a manned spacecraft to get up close and personal with an asteroid by 2025, a plan endorsed by the current White House. The mission would not only gather information about the makeup and history of asteroids, it would also give NASA a chance to check out much of its yet-to-be designed manned-space-travel hardware. The ultimate purpose of this hardware would be a round trip to Mars.

But money’s tight and there’s no appetite for asking taxpayers to pay for this particular space project. Still, NASA and the administration want to get to an asteroid by 2025 and hit that milestone. What to do?

Some clever aerospace engineer came up with a solution, a unique spin on "moving the goalposts." NASA would design and build a hollow 18-ton unmanned spacecraft that would travel to a nearby asteroid, one measuring no more than 25 ft in diameter and weighing about 500 tons. The spacecraft would maneuver itself to somehow enclose and secure the asteroid. After using solar-electric propulsion to fly the celestial payload back near Earth, the asteroid would be injected into a high lunar orbit. This would give NASA a closer target for astronauts using equipment being built to explore the Moon and transport crew and cargo to the Space Station. NASA figures this scheme beats having to design longer-range spacecraft that could carry astronauts to an asteroid’s natural orbit.

There are obviously some hurdles remaining. NASA must first complete a study to see if the idea is even feasible. Rumors have it that there’s $100 million earmarked in the 2014 budget for this study. It will also take another $2.65 billion to build and fly the seven to 10-year mission if the current budget and schedule estimates are correct. Another potential problem: It wouldn’t surprise me if the EPA decides its scope of control extends at least to the edges of the Solar System and demand an environmental impact statement before moving the asteroid out of its natural habitat and into a new one.

The project could let NASA and the Administration say they met the 2025 target of getting astronauts to "visit" an asteroid, but it isn’t in keeping with the spirit of the original idea. After all, the project was originally formulated to give NASA a check flight on man-rated hardware designed for a trip to Mars. It was not to sightsee around a relatively small asteroid towed into our backyard. When confronted with this fact, an Air Force General said, "When the President announced that an asteroid would be the next destination for NASA’s human spaceflight program, he did not say NASA had to fly all the way to an asteroid. What matters is the ability to put humans on an asteroid."

So if I understand the General, he’d be happy and the goal will have been met if we fly a couple astronauts via a commercial flight to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to stand on fragments of an asteroid that crashed on Earth.

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