Mark V. Sykes rightly notes that “American Human Spaceflight is Floundering” [Commentary, Oct. 7, page 19]. But his prescription is to belittle the only option that might be afforded for humans to go anywhere in space in the next 10 years. He charges the administration with “changing gears” and says “objectives are not clear.” But going to an asteroid as a step into the solar system is a very clear objective, and the only gear change was moving the potential accomplishment forward in the absence of funding for a deep-space capability that could support astronauts on months-long interplanetary voyages.
We should be applauding the cleverness and can-do spirit of NASA as it attempts to harness robotic and human spaceflight to open up the space frontier. If the asteroid plan is approved, the United States will have astronauts going faster and further into space supported by a hitherto unimagined robotic accomplishment of moving a celestial body for those astronauts to scientifically explore.
Sykes’ cost and schedule risk assertion is a red herring: The cost of the robotic asteroid retrieval is a minor part of the U.S. human spaceflight program and does not increase risk to life or limb. If the schedule slips, the mission will be done a year or two later — still a decade or more before anyone can imagine getting approval to go back to the Moon or on to Mars.
If space enthusiasts now keep wishing for the unachievable or unaffordable, they will doom human spaceflight to go nowhere. The retrieved asteroid is somewhere — a step into the future for robots, for science, for resource evaluation, and for humans.
The writer is executive director emeritus of the Planetary Society.