President Barack Obama's asteroid lasso mission is at least partially designed to give humans a fighting chance of avoiding an Armageddon-like situation, NASA's top administrator said Monday.
The mission, planned for the 2020s, calls for NASA to use a robotic spacecraft to capture a still unspecified asteroid and bring it into orbit around the moon. From there, a manned spaceship will send astronauts to sample the asteroid and perhaps bring a sample of it back to Earth. The agency sees it as a chance to test its Orion spacecraft, which it plans to use to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. Speaking at the Human to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C. Monday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that beyond using the lasso mission as a test bed for Orion, the mission is also being done to "prepare efforts to prevent an asteroid from colliding with devastating force into our planet."
That concern is one that politicians have been increasingly worried about since a meteor struck Russia in February and a large asteroid passed within 17,200 miles of Earth on the same day. Days later, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) called on Congress to develop better asteroid tracking technology.
"We should continue to invest in systems that identify threatening asteroids and develop contingencies, if needed, to change the course of an asteroid headed toward Earth," Smith said in a statement.
Though NASA apparently didn't have an asteroid mission in mind a few years ago, William Gerstenmaier, head of NASA's human exploration project, said that in 2010, the agency was instructed by the Obama administration to design a manned mission to an asteroid.
After initially deciding that sending a manned spacecraft to an asteroid wasn't feasible within its budget, NASA decided to use a robotic spacecraft to bring it closer to Earth before sending humans to it.
NASA has apparently taken that to heart – Bolden wasn't the only high-level official to suggest Monday that an asteroid could pose a risk to the Earth. John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA's science mission directorate, said colonizing other planets is critical to humanity's survival.
"We have a pretty good theory that single-planet species don't survive," he said. "We don't want to test it, but we have some evidence of that happening 65 million years ago [when an asteroid killed much of Earth's life]. That will happen again someday … we want to have the capability [to leave the planet] in case of the threat of large scale destruction on Earth."
Gerstenmaier said the asteroid mission will help humans "break the tie to Earth."
"With the space station, we can come back within a matter of hours [if there's a problem]," he said. During the asteroid mission, "we could be five days away or more. Orion would need to be sustained for that period of time [if there's a problem]. As we get closer to Mars, we need to have to break the mentality that we can easily get back to Earth."