Describing "leadership in space" as the "only proper goal to which America should aspire," former Apollo astronaut and retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford told Members of the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday that the Moon "is our nearest neighbor in space, and the key to the human future in space." Stafford characterized the Obama "catch-an-asteroid" initiative, included in the White House's FY14 budget request for NASA, as something that might be "an interesting adjunct" to a serious program for lunar exploration. It is not "a central theme of any sensible long-term human spaceflight program," he counseled.
Stafford, who was the commander of the Apollo capsule that linked up in orbit with the Soviet Soyuz in 1975, reported that following a meeting last year of the advisory task force for the International Space Station, Russian colleagues gave the Americans a separate briefing, outlining their proposed 20- to 30-year plan for human space exploration. "The Russians said they consider the Moon another continent which to explore," he reported.
Also testifying at the Senate hearing was Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. He tried to put the best spin on the idiotic asteroid plan, stating that even if it didn't work, we would develop new technology!
But in two talks last week, space professional Marcia Smith reports, Gerstenmaier provided all the ammunition Congress needs to kill the asteroid "initiative." The idea is to send a solar electric-propelled robotic spacecraft (technology that is useless for manned missions) on a multi-year mission to capture a 5-7 meter asteroid (which is so small, we don't have the capability to even find one). The candidate asteroid would have to be suitable in terms of size, spin rate, and composition, and already be headed toward the Earth-Moon system.
The plan is to "nudge" this imaginary asteroid into a lunar orbit, and then send astronauts on a 20+ day mission to visit it and bring back a sample (which could be done robotically, without risking lives). Gerstenmaier said he is making no promises to actually capture an asteroid, because not enough will be known about it to ensure it will succeed! But sending a robotic precursor mission to study it in advance, he said, would add cost and time, undermining the rationale for the project (to be "quick" and cheap). He also cautioned that in this mission, planetary defense is tangential, because the technology is "not 100% applicable to saving your kids." Potentially Hazardous Asteroids are much larger than what this mission aims for, and, "I think it's a little disingenuous to say its sole purpose is planetary protection." The tiny asteroid needed for this mission, he said, poses no threat to Earth.