NASA's asteroid-wrangling plan may get shot down

Lawmakers look to cut plan; NASA says it's crucial to future treks

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Artist rendering of an asteroid capture. / NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA promoted its plan for a proposed human expedition to an asteroid Tuesday as congressional lawmakers aimed to kill the project in its infancy.

Outlined in the Obama Administration's proposed 2014 budget, the mission would involve capturing an asteroid with a robotic spacecraft, hauling it back to a lunar orbit, and then sending astronauts on a sample return mission.

But on Wednesday, Local 6 News partner Florida Today reports, a House subcommittee that draws up NASA's budget will review a draft authorization bill that reportedly prohibits the asteroid mission and instead steers NASA back to the moon.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said the early House version of the agency's 2013 spending plan, which projects budgets for a five-year period, is a letdown.

"It was certainly a disappointment to have — as we've seen in the draft authorization bill from the House leadership — a lack of a recognition yet, I will say, of the importance and value of this mission," Garver said at an industry briefing on the asteroid initiative.

NASA and White House officials say the initiative would:

• Help identify asteroids that threaten Earth and develop means to protect the planet from them.

• Shed light on the formation of the solar system.

• Drive development of technologies required for human expeditions to Mars. NASA's Astronaut Office also would gain operational experience for deep space exploration.

Garver seemed confident that NASA would win over opponents on the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

"This is the beginning of the debate," she said. "I think that we really, truly are going to be able to show the value of this mission."

The industry trade publication SpaceNews this month reported that the draft authorization bill would nix NASA's plans for starting up the asteroid initiative, which was sanctioned by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

NASA in 2014 is requesting $105 million to start up the project. Twenty percent of the money would go toward doubling current efforts to identify near-Earth asteroids. NASA has not yet estimated the full cost of an asteroid retrieval mission.

Republican lawmakers are outwardly opposed to the initiative.

Lamar Smith, R-Texas and the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said NASA "haphazardly" created the asteroid initiative despite a National Research Council report that "found little support for the proposal."

"Congress has a long history of support for lunar landings and exploration. To me, there is no better way for our astronauts to learn how to live and work on another planet than to use the moon as a training ground," Smith said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, reintroduced legislation this year that would direct NASA to send astronauts to the moon within 10 years.

Garver claimed "bipartisan support" for the asteroid initiative and quoted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando: "It really is a clever concept. Go find your ideal candidate for an asteroid. Go get it robotically and bring it back."

NASA issued a request Tuesday for industry, academia, national research and development labs and the general public to provide ideas for its asteroid initiative.

Specifically, NASA is focusing on six areas: asteroid observation; asteroid redirection systems; asteroid deflection demonstrations; asteroid capture systems; crew systems for asteroid exploration; and partnerships and participatory engagement.

NASA sees the asteroid expedition as a steppingstone to subsequent missions to the moon, Mars, or other deep space destinations.

"This is one mission, but it's really that first step that's going to allow us to get humans beyond Earth orbit, to push further out into the universe," said William Gerstenmaier, chief of NASA's human exploration and operations office.

"And we look to you to help figure out ways to connect those dots and make effective use of this mission so it feeds forward to those other bigger destinations."

A formal Request For Information to provide ideas on NASA's asteroid initiative is posted at NASA's business opportunities website. Deadline for ideas is 5 p.m. July 18. NASA will consider them at a July 30 mission formulation review.

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