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2014 NASA Budget Starts Ambitious Asteroid Mission

President Obama seeks steady NASA budgets of $17.7 billion through 2018 in the funding request he presented to Congress on Wednesday, enough to start the space agency on an ambitious mission to identify and maneuver an asteroid into lunar orbit, where U. S. astronauts could explore it as soon as 2021.

A crew of U. S. astronauts approaches an asteroid in this illustration depicting a NASA Multi-mission Space Exploration Vehicle.

The spending plan would provide $105 million in 2014 to kick off efforts to identify a suitable 7-10 meter, 500 ton asteroid as well as accelerate work on the solar electric propulsion system and guidance systems needed to corral and retrieve an unstable Near Earth Object.

Artist's illustration of NASA asteroid retrieval mission.

The 2014 budget also ramps up spending to $820 million annually for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the amount agency officials say is needed to develop competing privately operated spacecraft by 2017 to transport astronauts to the International Space Station and back.

“We have had to make some really tough choices with this budget,” NASA Administrator Bolden noted in introductory remarks. “But we think we have done our best to make really prudent decisions and that NASA will be using its resources strategically for a unified cohesive exploration program that raises the bar for what humans can achieve.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

Congress will begin hearings on science agency budgets, including NASA’s, on April 17.

Under the proposal, NASA returns to annual pre-sequester spending levels of 2012. NASA spending fell to about $16.6 billion in 2013, when sequestration was applied to the budget Continuing Resolution adopted by the White House and Congress in March.

NASA expects to establish a long term price tag for the asteroid mission later this year.

The Keck Institute for Space Studies, a Cal Tech non profit, authored the asteroid retrieval concept in 2011-12 and calculated a $2.6 billion price tag. However, established NASA expertise and on going work on the Space Launch System and the Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle as well as a different choice in target asteroids would likely lower Keck’s estimates, said Beth Robinson, the agency’s chief financial officer.

The proposed budget would keep the four person Orion/MPCV on target for a key unpiloted flight test atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket in late 2014. Orion would be mated to the new Space Launch System super rocket in 2017 for another unpiloted orbital test flight. If the development plan unfolds as scheduled, the first crewed flight of the Orion/MPCV atop the new NASA heavy lifter would follow in 2021, just in time for astronauts to greet the lunar orbiting asteroid.

The asteroid venture could bring new global capabilities to deflect Near Earth Objects on a collision course with the Earth as well.  The threat became apparent in mid-February, when a small asteroid exploded over Russia. Injuries from the blast wave sent more than 1,000 to area hospitals with injuries. Later that same say, a larger asteroid skimmed within 18,000 miles of the Earth.  The encounters prompted three Congressional hearings in response to global concerns.

U. S.capabilities to launch crews and cargo to the International Space Station ended in mid-2011 with the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet. The space agency began to turn over the cargo delivery duties to the private sector with SpaceX missions in 2012.

Currently, NASA is working with Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX on the crew transportation part. The effort, however, has been capped by Congress well below the $820 million annually that NASA estimates will be necessary to begin launching astronauts by 2017.

NASA and its global partners are committed to space station operations through 2020, and NASA would like to extend activities through 2028 to gain a greater understanding of how humans adapt to month’s long space missions. The station also serves as a key technology test bed for deep space mission hardware.

“The space station remains the centerpiece of our human exploration efforts,” said Bolden.

Elsewhere, the 2014 budget seeks funds to complete the development and testing of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for a late 2018 launch. Designed to study the earliest star systems and the evolution of the young universe, James Webb is the designated replacement for the aging Hubble Space Telescope.

The budget also funds a second Curiosity Mars rover, which NASA plans to launch in 2020. Though the second rover’s duties remain in definition, Curiosity 2.0 may cache samples of Martian soil and rocks for a future international effort to return them to Earth with a robotic probe.

Currently, NASA’s efforts are focused on launching human explorers to the Martian environs by the mid-2030s.



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