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Visiting an asteroid: What's the point?

Why should we, as a race, support human spaceflight? It turns out that one answer is very simple: to protect Earth from civilization-ending asteroid impacts.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Why should we, as a race, support human spaceflight? This is one of the key questions hanging over the world's space agencies in these hard economic times. It turns out that one answer is very simple: to protect Earth from civilization-ending asteroid impacts.

Recently, President Obama spoke at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to announce his new proposed direction for the US space agency: skip the moon, send man to a near-Earth asteroid (NEO) by the mid 2020's and use this new technological know-how to get humans to our ultimate goal — Mars.

Although the reasons for landing astronauts on asteroids are sound, NASA's proposed redirection has been met with fierce opposition. Most of this opposition is purely political, but the message is clear: We're no closer to replacing the space shuttle and there's no clear incentive to support an expensive manned space program.

Just because we've proven we can live in space for long periods, for many policy makers, it doesn't mean we need to do it. Unfortunately, we probably won't understand the need to push into space until it is far too late.

The incentive for Obama's manned mission to an asteroid is clear, but it certainly isn't an urgent need — if it's not urgent, where's the political will to follow through when the costs start to spiral? Of course I'm talking about asteroid deflection, but there is currently no "incoming mail" (that we know of), so why should we care?

Asteroid preparedness
Steering an asteroid away from a collision course with Earth would be a huge endeavor, I'd argue that it would be a critical technique for our race to master if we are to defend our civilization for centuries to come (although the next 100 years may prove to be our undoing without the help of any errant space rock).

In an article posted in USA Today, the hurdles facing a future manned mission to an asteroid have been laid out. Apparently, the movie Armageddon wasn't terribly accurate (who knew!) and the realities of sending a group of oil drillers astronauts to a mountain-sized hunk of rock in space is a lot harder than it looks.

Apart from stating the painfully obvious, the article outlines how Hollywood asteroid deflection techniques differ from the real-world scenario.

For a start, once the space shuttle is retired at the end of this year, the US has no manned space vehicle. Also, the shuttle would have been useless for deep space missions as it is an orbiter (i.e. it isn't designed to leave low-Earth orbit). In Armageddon, our heroes use a modified shuttle for their little jaunt. Strike One Hollywood.

This is the rationale behind building a next generation heavy launch vehicle; a rocket that is powerful enough to get astronauts, kit and supplies beyond the orbit of Earth and the moon. Before the announcement that the Constellation Program was going to be scrapped, the Ares V and Ares I were those launch vehicles. Unfortunately, it appears we have to go back to the drawing board to think up a better idea.

Don't hop, stay tethered
So what about the dynamics of actually traveling to, and working on, an asteroid? Well, the mission would likely take months. That's a huge challenge in itself. Living in a confined spacecraft with the same people for months on end could be the single biggest psychological battle we face in space.

Then there's "landing" on the asteroid. Actually, you can't land, it's more of a docking procedure as the gravitational field of asteroids is tiny. If enjoying a space walk untethered (bad move), our explorers are a hop away from achieving escape velocity and being lost in space.

I could talk about the challenges of exploring an asteroid for hours, but NASA and the world's space agencies are acutely aware about these challenges. Alas, this isn't even the issue. The problems we face are political in nature — why should any government (or, more likely, the international community) commit hundreds of billions of dollars into sending men to asteroids in the aim of learning more about these interplanetary vagabonds in preparation for a potentially hazardous asteroid in the undefined future?

Sustainable Space
Sending mankind into deep space to study an asteroid would be a glorious moment in human history, but it can't be just one trip. Planting flags in the surface of the moon in the 1960's and '70's had little impact on the long-term survival of man beyond our own planet. 40 years on and we're still confined to low-Earth orbit. The Apollo era was driven by political ideals, not science or the long-term survival of our species.

If we are to be prepared for a potentially hazardous asteroid aimed at Earth, we need to create an infrastructure that would facilitate easy access to interplanetary space. This can't be a single mission just to say "we did it," we need a sustainable means of accessing space.

"If we're making progress toward goals that are exciting and important to the American people, then it should be a sustainable program," said Laurie Leshin, a NASA official involved in the early planning stages of an asteroid mission.

Let's just hope we've learned from previous lessons that expensive, unsustainable manned missions won't keep us in space. There needs to be committed long-term investment, not just from governments, but from the burgeoning commercial space industry. Perhaps then we will have the capability to deal with whatever the Universe decides to throw at us.

On the other hand, we could just make bigger nuclear missiles ...