Facing Budget Battles, NASA Still Aims High in Asteroid Capture Mission

The U.S. has explored space with telescopes, robotic rovers and its shuttle. Now facing budget cuts and reduced resources, NASA has had to reassess its ambitions while heeding the call for new discovery. Judy Woodruff talks to Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post about a new program that aims to capture a small asteroid.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the future of the U.S. space program and the many questions surrounding it, the mission, the money, and the politics.

More than two years ago, space shuttle Atlantis touched down for final the time at the Kennedy Space Center.

CHRIS FERGUSON, NASA: After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history and has come to a final stop.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The landing marked the end of a more-than-three-decade-long era for the shuttle program and came after NASA's glory days with trips to the moon.

Manned spaceflight has not been the sole focal point of NASA's success. Powerful telescopes have revealed new insights about thousands of potential planets. Astronauts still do research on the International Space Station. And robotic rovers on Mars have beamed back images and information about the red planet's surface.

But facing budget cutbacks and political pressures, NASA now faces a looming question: What comes next?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.


JUDY WOODRUFF: In a 2010 speech on space exploration, President Obama pressed for further discovery. The space program heeded the call, and recently launched Asteroid Redirect Mission, an ambitious program to capture a small asteroid.

NASA is also already at work on the Orion and the Space Launch System, new designs for manned space exploration.

Joel Achenbach is looking at all of the questions connected to NASA as part of a new series by The Washington Post. The first article ran this week. It focused on the asteroid project, called "Mission Improbable."

Joel Achenbach joins me now.

Why mission improbable? And, by the way, welcome back to the NewsHour.

JOEL ACHENBACH, The Washington Post: Well, thank you, Judy. Great to be here.

This is a challenging situation for NASA. If you're the agency, where are you going to go? What are you going to do? This is a question that's been posed really for decades now. They want to go to Mars, but that's really hard. It would be very expensive. It's very challenging technically to go to Mars with human beings and to bring them back alive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's so far away, cost so much.

JOEL ACHENBACH: It's far. It would cost many billions of dollars.

The current policy of the United States is to go to an asteroid. This is the 2010 national space policy. President Obama said, let's go to an asteroid. What I didn't know until I did my research, my reporting on this, is that to go to an asteroid would take about a year, even a near-Earth asteroid.

You always think, well, where are they? Well, they're in orbit around the sun. They come close to the Earth, but they're moving at different speeds. And any trip to an asteroid would take a long time. And NASA doesn't have the hardware to do that, doesn't have the money to do that. It's a very daunting challenge.

And so they have come up with this fallback plan, which is to bring the asteroid back to orbit around the moon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that even possible?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Yes, it's possible.

I mean, will this actually happen? Well, that's a big question. That's what we looked at. A lot of the scientists say, we don't have a good target. If you look at the near-Earth asteroids, the ones you might potentially go grab...

JUDY WOODRUFF: That are out there orbiting the sun.  


JOEL ACHENBACH: Yes. They orbit the sun, just as the Earth does.

But they're moving at all different speeds. So, it can't be spinning too rapidly. It can't be tumbling. It can't be just like a loose bag of rocks. It can't be too big, can't be too small. And so there's all -- and it can't be moving too quickly, too rapidly relative to the Earth.

And so to find a target rock -- they haven't found one yet. They don't have their target rock yet. So, that's the first challenge is which rock are they going to actually grab if they try to do this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you write in the article about there's disagreement in the NASA -- in the science -- the space community about whether this is even a good idea.

JOEL ACHENBACH: It's not the most popular mission that NASA has ever proposed.

The space scientists, they have a list of what they would like to do. Every 10 years, they do a survey. What are our top priorities? This was not on their list.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not even on the list?


JOEL ACHENBACH: This is not really considered a science mission. It's more of a technology-driven, capabilities type of mission to show that we can do something like this.

And, most importantly, it gives a destination for this new rocket that they're building and the new spaceship. They're building a spaceship called Orion, which is a capsule that will go on top of this heavy-lift rocket called the SLS, the Space Launch System.

Where is this rocket going to go? What are you going to do with it? Now, President Bush said, go back to the moon. We will build a big rocket. We will build the Orion capsule and we will build a lunar lander. Obama killed that back-to-the-moon program, saying, we have been there, we have done that.

And this is a big debate. Should we go back to the moon or not? Where people want to go is Mars. An argument could be made that to go back to the moon doesn't really get you to Mars. But, in the meantime, we still have this big rocket and this space capsule. What are you going to do with it?

Well, the Asteroid Redirect Mission, where you capture this rock, bring it into orbit around the moon, go up, visit it in lunar orbit, do an EVA, a space walk with a couple of astronauts, they will examine it, bring back samples, that is the idea. It's a lot of moving parts, though. And we call it mission improbable because I don't think you would want to gamble this is really going to happen, at least on NASA's current timetable. They're hoping to do it by 2021.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it's all caught up in this question of what is NASA's mission now going forward.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Yes. What is NASA trying to do? What's the point of this?

This is an agency that's done incredible things. And, someday, maybe NASA will lead an international effort to put people on Mars. That's the goal that everyone wants to do. Short of that, maybe you could put people in orbit around Mars. Short of that, maybe someday you could go to a near-Earth asteroid. This is one step behind that. This is examining a rock that you have captured and put in orbit around the moon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick last question. Is this all about a lack of money that's making it so hard to figure this out, or is it more than that?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Spaceflight is hard.

And, with human beings, it's very difficult. It's very expensive to do it, if you want to do it safely and do it the way NASA does it, which is the presumption is, our astronauts are going to come home alive from this mission. So, yes, it costs a lot of money to do it.

And NASA for years has had a flat budget. It's now been declining a little bit. And so an argument can be made that they have been asked to do really difficult things, but they have not been given the money to do it. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joel Achenbach, fascinating first piece. And we will be looking for what's next in the series.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Thank you, Judy.