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Asteroid Missions May Replace Lunar Base Plans 237

An anonymous reader alerts us to a story about efforts to modify the United States' space exploration plans to focus on asteroid missions rather than a lunar base. Scientists, astronauts, and former NASA division directors will be meeting next month to develop an alternative to the Bush administration's Vision for Space Exploration. We have previously discussed the possibility of a manned asteroid mission. Quoting: "Numerous planetary managers told Aviation Week & Space Technology they now fear a manned Moon base and even shorter sorties to the Moon will bog down the space program for decades and inhibit, rather than facilitate, manned Mars operations--the ultimate goal of both the Bush and alternative visions. The first lunar sortie would be flown by about 2020 under the Bush plan. If alternative-vision planners have their way, the mission could instead be flown to an asteroid in about 2025."
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Asteroid Missions May Replace Lunar Base Plans

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  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @09:41AM (#22116486)

    Manned asteroid missions have little if anything to do with asteroid deflection strategies. If you want to keep the Earth safe from big nasty dinosaur-killers, you spend money on tracking every Earth crossing Asteroid in the sky, not on sending people to 1 or 2 of them. Early detection of potential dangers makes any deflection strategy (almost certainly unmanned, despite what your favourite movies might tell you) more plausible

    The purpose of visiting asteroids is looking for something to mine or doing science to investigate the origins of the solar system.

  • Mining? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by toppavak ( 943659 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @09:55AM (#22116524)
    Its fairly logical to think that if its so expensive to get stuff into space, just build it there. While manned missions to the moon and on to mars would certainly be amazing, I fail to see the point of a manned mission to an asteroid. Just send a probe and play around with altering a small asteroid's orbit and bring it into a lunar orbit. Creating an automated system that collects small asteroids (small enough that they'd burn up in atmosphere) and bring them to the moon to be processed would be a tremendous step forward in human expansion into space. Unfortunately, I don't think anything like this would happen until commercial space missions start making it further out there.

    For anyone that hasn't heard of him, I'd strongly recommend you check out Bill Stone's [ted.com] TED talk. The whole thing is pretty cool, but its the last chapter in the video thats really amazing.
  • Re:A great idea (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mccalli ( 323026 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @09:55AM (#22116526) Homepage
    If true, this is very good news. Asteroids, the smaller and more numerous ones being undifferentiated bodies, have considerably more scientific value than the moon.

    I am unqualified to evaluate what you say and so I will not quibble with any of it. However, can I come outright and say that I honestly do not care about scientific value at this point? I want to see a moonbase. I want proof it can be done on a small planetary scale. I want to see new settlements of humans off this planet, even if only to our nearest satellite. I want to see the whole thing shown to be do'able, not for study's sake, but because it should be being done. I want to see a practical application and a first step to living elsewhere. I think a base on the moon provides that in a way that asteroid exploration just doesn't.

  • Sounds fine to me (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 20, 2008 @10:08AM (#22116586)
    Practical, cheaper, potentially immediate benefits.

    * Learning how to manage NEOs in case of the ultimate nightmare scenario
    * Applying and extending our experience in microgravity
    * Potential to access resources far easier than on the moon (metals, water, oxygen)
    * Returnable to earth orbit for building an orbital industrial infrastructure
    * Easier to build completely reusable vehicles a possibility
    * Nasa guys clearly read Stephen Baxter, Kim Stanley Robinson, and have played Eve Online.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 20, 2008 @10:31AM (#22116650)
    I really can't help wonder if some people try to keep us from going to the moon (again) and this time actually see for ourselves what has been going on there in the past. Or they simply are incapable of looking at the big picture. A moonbase would be a much better solution, but in the longer run. Simply because launching rockets and other spacecraft from the moon would require tremendous lesser amounts of energy, thus reserving those to be used during the mission. And once you've overcome that problem even asteroid missions could be a lot easier to accomplish.

    And thats not even touching other big advantages over a lunar base. For example space exploration. The best way to look into space now is Hubble. I'm pretty sure that a telescope on the moon would also give us lots more insights then we have now. Simply because the "distractions" from the Earth would be nearly gone (talking about light interference and such). And what to think about asteroid tracking? Its not very easy to simply "shift" the Hubble whereas a stationed telescope might be able to cover more parts of the sky due to a more dynamicly approach.

    All in all I can't help wonder if people aren't trying to get their short termed solution suddenly accross. Perhaps even fed with the disdain most people have gotten from that nincapoop president.
  • And then what? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Per Abrahamsen ( 1397 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @11:13AM (#22116796) Homepage
    Not sure there is any future in putting people on the moon, or down on the bottom of any other gravity well. To prove it can be done? Well, we proved that in 1969, and that didn't get us anywhere.

    I'd much rather see us put people (or robots) somewhere that actually direct us towards a future in space. Mining the asteroids has potential, not for putting anything back to Earth (too expensive), but for raw material for further space exploration, building space stations, and manufacturing specialized composited that require weightlessness.

    Eventually, we may send expeditions and construct bases on the bottom of the gravity wells. But that should be done from our permanent bases in space, not from Earth.

    I suspect there is a limit on how many blind alleys we get a chance to explore. Let's go towards where there is most potential. And that is not on the bottom of any gravity well.
  • DOD will push back (Score:4, Interesting)

    by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @11:50AM (#22117008) Journal
    It is not just NASA that wants the moon.
  • Re:A great idea (Score:3, Interesting)

    by wizardforce ( 1005805 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @12:36PM (#22117290) Journal
    how about an asteroid base? they require less fuel to go to and return from and they have plenty of cool stuff that the moon doesn't have... like frozen water, diamonds and precious metals [iridium, platinum, gold etc.] the moon OTOH has relatively strong gravity compared to an asteroid making leaving the moon far more difficult. the lack of anything usable like nitrogen, water or carbon also make the moon a worse place to set up a base. it would need o be constantly supplied from Earth while asteroid bases could in principle, be fairly independent.
  • Car Analogy (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 20, 2008 @01:34PM (#22117708)

    We can go to Mars, and we can start NOW. No need for holes on the Moon into which we pour money
    You don't buy a car without first kicking the tires. Why would you set out for a long duration stay on Mars before first knowing if we can do it on the Moon? Mars is a few orders of magnitude farther away than the Moon so any mission to Mars is going to be a long-duration stay - you can bet on it.

    The moon is a much safer place to try the first attempt at a colony. If someone gets sick, injured, the complex collapses, gets a hole in it, aliens attack or if people just get space madness, a lifeboat to Earth is much more likely to succeed because you don't have to wait for the orbits to align themselves just right. Only after we have figured out solutions to some of the problems we have not even thought about yet, then we will be ready for Mars.

    And to summarize with one more analogy: you don't take a trip to the next town over until you can first walk out of your own back yard.
  • Re:A little sad (Score:3, Interesting)

    by KKlaus ( 1012919 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @01:57PM (#22117868)
    So build a robotic moon base. It would be a good first step, and if it became self-sufficient, it would let us skip the hugely expensive "escape earth's gravitational field" part of lunar exploration, ultimately bringing costs down.

    Further, I think advanced robotics is clearly one of those areas that could use some public funding to get through some of the early extremely expensive hard stuff that keeps out large scale private investment. What better (and more exciting) way to do that than with a moon base?
  • by O2H2 ( 891353 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @02:06PM (#22117948)
    The problems with going to the moon are not technical. They are political and managerial. We cannot adequately supply a spacestation that is a few hundred miles away with enough material to conduct meaningful science. NASA strangled any option for going there besides shuttle and that leaves us with Progress (1.5 tons cargo/launch) and maybe the ATV which costs nearly half a billion dollars a flight to deliver a few tons per year. NASA did this deliberately and consistently has hamstrung commercial space access. How in the world are they going to deliver a practical amount of cargo to support any real science or habitation on the moon? The answer is they can't. The present ESAS moon architecture is completely incapable of doing anything remotely like a moon base or real exploration. It is a dead end levied on NASA by a couple of ego-maniacs with not a lick of real-world experience between them. The sooner ARES is cancelled the better.

    There are numerous alternative architectures that can deliver the hundreds of tons of supplies you need on the lunar surface within practical budgets. But they involve direct commercial and industry involvement. Until these players are fully engaged we will not be going back to the moon in a meaningful way. Most importantly these architectures provide the foundations for going to Mars in a meaningful way. Anyone who thinks you are gonna do anything meaningful on Mars with a handful of crew is simply wrong. It requires a bare-bones crew of at least 90 to support three science teams of 6 each. If you want confirmation look at Antarctic operations to get yourself calibrated. Furthermore on any real Mars mission at least part of the crew that goes does not come back on the first return opportunity. They are there for at least two cycles and transfer tasks and responsibilities to the second cycle crew etc etc. It is getting used to not coming back for 5 years that is perhaps one of the most important psychological barriers we must cross. The moon is a good place to start this- staying there permanently creates an enormous improvement in efficiency. You can finally forget about the retreat to Earth as the only safe option. Worth nearly 3000 m/sec delta V.

    So the moon is worthy goal- but it is the practice of developing self-sustaining colonies that is the real barrier.

  • Re:A great idea (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mccalli ( 323026 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @02:35PM (#22118208) Homepage
    To address your point - for forty years or so people have dithered about what the main point is, so yes I rather feel that the "in my lifetime" bit has been wasted.

    Another post sets it out clearly - this one [slashdot.org]. What is the goal? To my mind, the goal is colonisation. If that is the goal, actions which delay this is in favour of a different goal are to be considered counterproductive.
    Now, you may well state that your goal doesn't match mine. That's fine, and fully understood. However, unless someone actually states what they want out of the research and what their end goal is then no progress towards it will be made. The thing to do is to define what "it" actually is, and that's what my post was about.

    For me, I want to see efforts towards a moon base as it provides definitive proof that it is possible to live off the Earth. I'm aware of dependencies such as provisions and potentially even energy coming in the form of supplies from the Earth, but until we try it we'll never really know. My hope is that some of the solutions to those problems will be found after we're there - I'm a believer in proximity to the problem helping to focus minds, the "necessity is the mother of invention" situation.

    And that's that. It's purely a statement of position by myself - I value progress towards an off-Earth settlement as being of greater value than increased understanding of asteroids. That's all the "I want" stuff was - statement of position. Not a waah waah waah give it to me now-type thing (and where's my flying car?), but a statement of what I believe the end goal should actually be.

  • Re:The End of Spirit (Score:4, Interesting)

    by smchris ( 464899 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @03:32PM (#22118800)
    Oh, we still dream. It's just that we've replaced aspirations with fantasies.

    As an Apollo-era teenager I share my age group's frustrations that I don't have my jet car on Mars yet. Heck, we quit following the last few missions. Been there, done that. But all this smacks of back seat desperation. _IF_ by now we had created a huge space station that had learned to be self-sustaining with zero resupply/repair ferries for years, then it _might_ be reasonable to talk about multi-year manned missions around the inner solar system. But as it is, it's more than a little ugly. Sure, you'd get enough volunteers. But watching them die 30 million miles from earth because something and its backup broke is PR that would set your gamble back many years.

    Been to the moon so why bother to go back? Why do we have a permanent presence in antarctica -- the favorable corn-growing season?

    And, sadly, I also wonder whether this is likely to be some weird propaganda that costs nothing during any particular year of a presidency but keeps the Star Trek voter happy.

  • Re:So... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 20, 2008 @03:55PM (#22119008)
    Consider that the new lunar missions are a good way of training up this next generation of technical staff. Just because "we've done it before" does not mean that we still know how to do it. The experienced folks are retiring....
  • by Gorimek ( 61128 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @05:04PM (#22119650) Homepage
    The Moon actually has more sunlight than anywhere on earth, especially any tundras. You can use that both for energy and farming. Greenhouses could be pretty simple to get operating there. What plants can handle month long days I don't know, but there's got to be some.

    There is also no real weather problems in terms of wind, rain, snow etc. Yeah, it's a harsh environment, but it holds no surprises, other than the occasional solar outburst (serious enough though).

    And the killer feature is that it's so close. You can get there in a few days, as opposed to years for any asteroid missions.

    That also brings in the revenue source you didn't mention. Even if there is nothing useful a moon base could manufacture, I think it could sustain itself very well just as tourist spot for the megarich.
  • Re:So... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @05:13PM (#22119744) Journal
    Again, I don't think he's a fool -- that's media created. But based on results, you can't conclude that he's anything but stunningly incompetent, ...

    I didn't know those were very different. The "fool" part is in not realizing/admitting you are in over your head and either listen to experts or bail.
  • Re:So... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 20, 2008 @05:44PM (#22120044)
    I never was a W supporter. I did support the Iraq war, though, on the ground that that was one less dictator (I never swallowed the various and obviously bullshit reasons we were offered).

    I think the problem is that W is fundamentally a weak and insecure person who *sees himself* as tough. This is not idle psychobabble. A tough guy will instinctively pounce but will not recoil from cutting his losses if or when it appears that the tough line is unproductive. Somebody like GWB, on the other hand, will instinctively... do nothing until he identified something tough to do, and will not accept a mistake, never mind a failure, for fear of looking, even to himself, weak. Did you see his interview by Terry Moran in Saudi Arabia? That's what I'm talking about. "If it's possible... your majesty... please consider", that's his instinct: do nothing. He didn't even plan to do anything, otherwise he'd have been prepared. "Don't you think the American people would expect something a little bit tougher than that? - (With a killing look) What does that mean?" That's his vision of himself: he's tough.

    It explains a lot:

    Can anyone picture Reagan, or even (gasp!) Clinton staying with the kids after 9/11 and then remaining out of sight for the day? Of course not.
    They probably would not have attacked Iraq, either, but W needed to show to the world and to himself that he was not to be messed with. A unnoticed fact is that, of the axis of evil members, he chose to attack the weakest (Iran was not crippled by UN embargoes, most of the country actually support their leaders, and its army is not held together by fear, North Korea has China's backing, and its army is fanatical; both have chemical weapons; finally attacking either would have wrecked the world economy, Iran because of oil, North Korea by leveling Seoul).
    *If* they had, and the thing had turned into a quagmire, they would not have wavered and dithered for 3 years, while pretending everything was fine, before implementing the surge (or leaving).
    And so on...
  • Re:A great idea (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Sinical ( 14215 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @06:08PM (#22120270)
    Flame on.

    Dear asshole,

    Americans are paying for it, so I'd say what we want matters a fair deal. And in this instance, the original poster was saying that he would prefer that we do the initial work of building a permanent presence on the Moon. In fact, so would I. I am more interested in starting that work now, using the money that *I* am providing, then on the scientific exploration of asteroids, given the choice. Sadly for the scientists, they will have to do a lot of convincing in order for me to prioritize their desires for knowledge over my desire for a permanent settlement on a second Solar body. They can always start their own asteroid-exploring scientific foundation, if they have troubles with the priorities I set for them. Or they can ask for both: I would in fact be quite willing to open my wallet if I could directly support their work. But I can't, they are SOL, and should get back to doing what I'm paying them to do.
  • by billstewart ( 78916 ) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @07:32PM (#22120952) Journal
    The moon has one advantage over building in orbit, which is that you can find some of the materials you need there and not have to haul them up from Earth. But you're probably not going to find all of them, and there's a big honkin' gravity well keeping you down there once you're there, with no obvious fuel source for return trips. Mars is a lot more interesting, and it might be possible to terraform it a bit - but otherwise it's just ego-trip tourism. Working in orbit's a lot more useful, because there's a lot we can learn about the Earth from up there; I suppose the moon's a good place to put a telescope or whatever, but it's not that useful otherwise.

    But either place you go to, the most important thing you need to do is get a working ecosystem that can run for a fairly long time without significant inputs from outside, and we can do that research just as well in space (and a lot of it down on Earth as well.) So far we don't know how to take cute little terrariums like the Biosphere and run them at steady-state, and we'll need to do a lot more ecological research before it makes sense to do much human travel past orbit or L5 or whatever.

    Sending out robots is a different issue - most of the near-term value of space exploration doesn't need canned monkeys to operate things, and you can get by with much smaller simpler spacecraft if you're not trying to maintain an ecosystem. The issues of working at a time-delayed distance mean that it's really helpful to have somewhat artificially intelligent robots and not just waldoes, but there's not much that requires humans to be up close and personal.

APL hackers do it in the quad.