Officials also want to study a different asteroid with the help of astronauts. And it looks like the next president, plus Congress, will have to decide whether this human mission to a flying rock should ever get off the ground.
The idea of visiting an asteroid goes back to 2010, when President Obama went to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to lay out his new plan for space exploration. He said he wanted astronauts to eventually land on Mars, and that the first steps would be to send astronauts out beyond the moon.
“We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid, for the first time in history,” he told the NASA workers. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.”
The trouble is, flying people to an asteroid turned out to be really hard. The trip would take months.
So NASA settled on a slightly different plan, called the Asteroid Redirect Mission. The agency would send a robot out to retrieve an asteroid and bring it close to the moon. That way, the astronauts could study it in lunar orbit.
“It wasn’t sending people to an asteroid; it was bringing an asteroid to people. But you were still demonstrating some of the technologies that NASA wanted to demonstrate as part of its long-term goal of sending humans to Mars,” explains Marcia Smith, a space policy analyst and consultant.
But it was difficult to find a small asteroid to target, and that mission seemed too daunting. “They ultimately made the decision to not move an entire asteroid, but just pluck a boulder from the asteroid’s surface, and bring the boulder to the astronauts,” Smith says. “That is the current plan.”
Having a robot venture out tens of …