The Million Mile Mission
A small band of believers urges NASA to take its next step—onto an asteroid.
- By Michael Klesius
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
(Page 2 of 6)
The idea of a mission to an asteroid is not new. In 1966, Eugene Smith, an engineer with Northrop Space Laboratories, conducted a study for NASA on the use of Apollo hardware, including the giant Saturn V rocket, to carry six astronauts on a flyby of Eros. The trip would have been scheduled for 1975, when the asteroid came within 13 million miles of Earth, more than 50 times the distance to the moon. The round trip would have been 500 days.
More recently, NEOs came to public attention in July 1994, when the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke up and the pieces slammed into Jupiter, the largest packing a wallop equivalent to 400,000 times the power of the largest U.S. nuclear bomb ever exploded. Anyone who read a newspaper that summer imagined the same thing happening to Earth, and within two years an international organization called the Spaceguard Foundation was established to coordinate the tracking of asteroids and comets that might collide with the home planet.
Shoemaker-Levy got more people inside and outside NASA thinking seriously about the danger of NEOs. In October 2001, astronaut Ed Lu and astrophysicist Piet Hut convened a one-day workshop in Houston with about 20 asteroid and propulsion experts to discuss the possibility of deflecting an incoming NEO. Out of that meeting the B612 Foundation was formed, named for the space rock on which author Antoine de St. Exupéry’s Little Prince lived. The stated goal of the organization, now headed by Apollo veteran Rusty Schweickart, is to significantly alter the orbit of an asteroid in a controlled manner by 2015, just to show that it can be done.
Not by astronauts, though.
“I’m an old astronaut, so I’m totally for manned flights to an asteroid,” says Schweickart, who was Apollo 9’s lunar module pilot. “But in terms of deflecting one, robotic missions are completely adequate and far more cost-effective.”
The B612 Foundation proposes a rendezvous with a space rock for weeks or months, during which the robot spacecraft would act as a “gravity tractor,” using its own minuscule gravitational pull to tug the asteroid onto a new course. While B612 spread its message, Ed Lu went on to spend six months aboard the International Space Station. Three months after his return to Earth, in January 2004, the Bush administration announced its Vision for Space Exploration, an ambitious call to send astronauts beyond Earth orbit for the first time since 1972. While NASA set up Constellation and began focusing on the lunar return, targeted for 2020, Lu and the Asteroid Underground quietly pondered other possibilities.
“When NASA unveiled the concepts of the Ares I and V launch vehicles and [the] Orion [crew capsule],” remembers Lu, “I started wondering, ‘Hey, we have these rockets at our disposal. What else can we do?’ ”
By the summer of 2006, Lu, Tom Jones, and Dave Korsmeyer, an engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center who specializes in celestial mechanics, were conferring regularly with more than a dozen colleagues around the country, asking about the capabilities of Constellation and writing papers. NASA agreed to fund a feasibility study through its Advanced Projects Office that would examine how to use the Orion and Ares hardware to send people to a near-Earth asteroid. Korsmeyer managed the group. After many phone calls and e-mails among the 17 members of the study team, the first meeting took place at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in August 2006. Subsequent gatherings, about one per month, were convened at various NASA centers around the country. By the end of the year, the group had come to the conclusion that NASA’s new hardware could in fact carry humans to a NEO.