Recently, NASA developed a plan to send a crew of astronauts to an Earth-approaching asteroid, called Prospects for Future Human Space Flight Missions to Near-Earth Asteroids. The plan has its origins in a speech delivered by President Obama at the Kennedy Space Center in 2010.
Obama’s remarks were meant to quell a firestorm he created when he canceled the Constellation Program, the last attempt to go back to the moon. As a consolation prize, he proposed sending a crew of astronauts to an Earth-approaching asteroid before launching a crewed expedition to Mars. The new proposal, not yet funded, is an updated version of the Obama plan, using the SpaceX Starship instead of an Orion launched from a Space Launch System rocket.
The Obama proposal was not a serious one. It quickly devolved into something called the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which envisioned diverting a small asteroid or maybe a boulder from an asteroid into lunar orbit, where it would be visited by an Orion with a crew. No one took the idea seriously.
Dr. Richard Binzel of MIT, one of the world’s leading experts in small, celestial bodies such as asteroids and comets, was especially scornful. Instead, he suggested a survey of Earth-approaching asteroids, some of which might prove to be a threat to Earth.
The Asteroid Redirect Mission died a quick and unlamented death when President Trump assumed office and started the Artemis program that redirected NASA to send astronauts back to the moon before sending crewed expeditions to Mars. Unlike previous attempts to return to the moon, Artemis has met with considerable technical and political success. Artemis 1, an uncrewed mission around the moon, succeeded brilliantly.
NASA under first the Trump and now Biden administrations has not neglected Earth-approaching asteroids. The DART Mission proved the concept of diverting an asteroid in the event that it is on a collision course with Earth. NASA plans to launch the Near-Earth Object Surveyor telescope no earlier than September 2027 to locate and characterize Earth-approaching asteroids.
The idea of sending a SpaceX Starship to an Earth-approaching asteroid is far superior to the original Obama proposal. Starships can take 100 metric tons or more anywhere in the inner solar system. A version of the rocket will land the first Americans on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. Elon Musk dreams of using a fleet of Starships to build his Mars settlement.
According to the NASA plan, a Starship would be launched into low Earth orbit in 2039. It would be refueled, after which a Dragon with a crew of three would launch and dock with the Starship, transferring the astronauts to the larger spacecraft. The Starship would blast out of Earth’s orbit and rendezvous with an asteroid called 2001 FR85, estimated to be 29 to 65 meters in size. The ship would fly in tandem with the asteroid, taking samples and leaving behind robots. Then it would fly back to Earth orbit, where the crew would transfer to another Dragon to return to Earth.
The plan’s authors justify the mission because Earth-approaching asteroids could collide with Earth. A large asteroid ended the era of the dinosaurs when it hit the Earth about 63 million years ago. Studying Earth-approaching asteroids up close will yield a better understanding of how these objects behave in case one should be detected on its way to Earth and need to be diverted.
The other reason to send a crew to an Earth-approaching asteroid is that asteroids, along with the moon, represent a treasure trove of useful resources beyond the dreams of avarice. Minerals mined in space could feed space-based industries to make products that are impossible or at least difficult to make on Earth.
If human civilization means to solve the problem of climate change and at the same time raise the standard of living for everyone on Earth, space-based mining and industry are two of the keys to doing so. Expanding Earth’s economy to space makes a Starship expedition to an asteroid not just a nice thing to have, but something that will be necessary for the human species’ survival.
Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.