Pay attention: the important part about Obama's announcement is the asteroid mission, not the one to Mars

Saturday, April 17, 2010

As I feared, there is scant little attention being paid to the proposed manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid compared with Mars. After Obama's speech yesterday I noticed a large number of articles failed to mention the asteroid mission entirely, instead focusing on the Mars flyby in the 2030s. And sure enough, if we do a search on Google News:

1470 articles for Obama asteroid, vs. 5190 articles for Obama Mars. Yikes. Only 28% of the articles referencing Obama's plans for NASA even mention the asteroid mission, which is the one that will take place much, much sooner.

The reason why the asteroid mission is that much more important is this: it will be done sooner, it's more or less universally agreed that an asteroid mission is a good idea, and it's easier. A Mars mission...well, we've been planning Mars missions for a long time now and there's certainly no guarantee that the plan announced yesterday will actually result in astronauts being sent to Mars in the mid-2030s. There are simply too many variables involved to predict.

But an asteroid mission just involves a rocket, a spacecraft, and a suitable target, and assuming two terms the Obama administration should be able to have the program well underway by 2018/2019, after which it will have a momentum of its own. The International Space Station is a good example of this - regardless what one thinks of the ISS, it's now up there and nearly complete, so deciding to scrap it so soon after completion is a political impossibility. A Mars plan so far involving just a manned flyby almost two decades away though? Any administration could come in and scrap that, even after a second term. So Mars isn't the story here. This is.

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