And America's next manned target is...Mars? No wait, it's an asteroid.

Friday, April 16, 2010

It's morning here in Asia and Obama has just given his speech on the future of NASA. With titles like Obama sets Mars goal for America and article summaries saying something along the lines of "President Obama intends to send astronauts to orbit Mars by by mid-2030s" it looks like a plan based on a shocking lack of common sense (i.e. let's twiddle our thumbs for 25 years and then go straight to Mars), but not so: reading further into the article one sees that the first plan is for a manned mission to an asteroid, which is what definitely needs to be done before thinking about exploring Mars. Exploring an asteroid is both easier and harder than sending a manned mission to the Moon: harder because it involves a longer travel time (probably about two weeks one-way) and a very precise trajectory, but easier because landing is a cinch, being more a matter of docking than actually having to slow one's descent and then landing on a surface.

My position has always been that either the Moon or a near-Earth asteroid would be acceptable as the next manned destination. The Moon is becoming a much more viable location for long-term manned exploration and even private industry is on the verge of being able to explore it, but on the other hand an asteroid may be just what manned exploration needs to jolt the public out of a "how come we're going back to the Moon when we've already been there?"-type of jaded view on any proposals for lunar exploration.

And of course, keep in mind that this is a budget increase of $1+ billion a year, so NASA is not being cut in any way.

As for which asteroid to choose, that's an unknown at the moment. One reason is that we still have a lot of asteroids to discover, many of which will become known to us thanks to WISE. If we're lucky we'll find a binary (or even trinary) asteroid system that will pass us by sometime after 2020, and we'll be able to give it a name and make it the next exciting destination to work towards. The idea of going farther from the Earth than ever before and standing on the surface of an asteroid while one or even two smaller asteroid moons orbit above has a phenomenal Little Prince-type wonder to it that should excite even the most jaded.

Checking YouTube, the speech has been uploaded already so here it is in its entirety. I haven't seen it yet so once my cat goes to bed (who otherwise demands attention with a pathetic 'please-feel-sorry-for-me-I'm-bored' mew you can hear here while awake) I intend to do so.

Edit: still haven't had the opportunity to see the videos but apparently there's a portion where Obama says something to the effect of "let me be blunt. We've already been to the Moon and now it's time to go to Mars." Well, I don't think I'd count a few days on the surface of a body with a surface area equivalent to Africa + Australia as having "already been there", but it probably matters little given the ability of other countries as well as private companies to explore the Moon, and the more of this there is the more jealousy there may be on the American side to get in on this as well. I know I'm not the only one hoping for a second space race, though naturally one focused on healthy competition instead of a geopolitical upper hand.

Edit 2: Elon Musk has expressed his support.

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