The Obama Administration’s recent space initiative scraps former President Bush’s Orion moon program and planned moon base in favor of three basic components: Private industry, an asteroid rendezvous by 2025, and a manned Mars orbit by 2035.
Not wasting any time on nostalgia, aerospace industry giant Lockheed Martin, who had been helming the all-but-cancelled Orion spacecraft development, has seized on the suggestion and released a comprehensive proposal for how NASA can make the next off-world visit using their existing (or nearly-existing) Orion technology.
Citing a trinity rationale, “Security, Curiosity, and Prosperity,” Lockheed Martin’s proposal details how two Orion capsules and service modules (or one standard Orion capsule plus a SuperOrion they call the Orion Deep Space Vehicle,) can rendezvous with and explore one of a small class of Near-Earth-Objects (read: asteroids) that happen to swing close to Earth.
So, what does, “Security, Curiosity, and Prosperity” mean? Lockheed Martin ventures that security is a reason to visit an asteroid so that we can develop necessary interception know-how and experience should we ever have to try and divert one. Curiosity is reason to visit according to the plan because of the potential scientific boon exploring an asteroid would be for solar system formation research and planetary geology. Lastly, they mention prosperity due to the fact that there is a very real possibility that “mining” an asteroid for natural resources could be quite lucrative.
What are the pitfalls? The primary added risk of the asteroid mission over a lunar mission is distance. Should something mechanically or medically go wrong, the shortest possible emergency return trip is on the order of months instead of days. There is also a more prolonged exposure to radiation to consider.
However, the risk of an asteroid mission is also significantly reduced compared to a lunar mission in that two return capsules are taken along, so if something goes wrong with one, astronauts can still use the other to get home. More importantly, there is no landing module, no landing and launch logistics to manage, and therefore no real chance of crashing. Because an asteroid of this nature is so small (and its gravity weak), astronauts could literally park their Orion spacecraft next to the asteroid and spacewalk over to it.
Personally, I think this is fantastic. This may just the geologist in me talking, but I think Lockheed Martin’s “Security, Curiosity, Prosperity” concept is a home run. We really should be developing skills necessary in case we find an inbound asteroid with a high probability of a strike. (Else, why are we spending so much time and effort looking out for asteroids that might hit us?) The curiosity factor is a given, and I have personally been championing the “resourcing” of asteroids, (if I can make that a verb,) for years as a way of enabling larger space endeavors while reducing the “resource load” on Earth…
It’s also worth noting that the general experience of traveling through deep space would also be very, very useful experience for future trips to Mars.
So, will NASA go for it? I think they’d be wise to. They’ll be hard-pressed to find a more well-motivated mission with acceptable risk, redundancy, and potential payoff.