The NASA Follies

Asteroid_Redirect_Mission_boulder_pickupConsider this scenario …

A group of top NASA executives and engineers are seated around a conference table for a briefing on a proposed mission.

A young engineer summarizes the plan, somewhat nervously: “Basically, we will send a probe to capture asteroid A0176-A and insert it into a stable low Earth orbit. Then we will mount multiple scientific missions to examine its geology thoroughly.”

There was a long silence. Faces were solemn and worried glances were exchanged. Finally a senior executive spoke up: “So, you plan to transport a planet killer from the asteroid belt and insert it into Earth orbit, unlike anything we have attempted before? Now, what could go wrong with that?”

The young engineer’s boss quickly intervened: “We have analyzed an alternative option that isn’t quite as ambitious but would still have real scientific value. We could pick a boulder off the asteroid surface and put that into orbit instead. It would be far less risky if orbit insertion failed.” He looked hopefully at his colleagues.

Finally, the grizzled old NASA chief spoke up: “To be clear, you expect me to tell the President that we want to spend $1.5B to find a rock and put it into Earth orbit? Meeting over!”

Now of course this is a fictional scenario. But something like this must actually have happened. This mission is part of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. But for safety reasons, the boulder would be inserted in a Moon orbit instead. The unfortunate consequence is that scientific missions to this captured fragment of an asteroid would be too expensive. Other than demonstrating that we can do Asteroid Belt garbage collection, mostly all we will accomplish is to give our Moon a mini-Moon.

The cover story for the press is that it will be “a stepping stone to Mars.”

Personal aside: I have worked on several NASA projects and have the greatest affection and admiration for their work.