WASHINGTON — Speaking Oct. 21 before a National Research Council panel evaluating NASA’s human spaceflight goals, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden defended the agency’s plan to build deep-space hardware before settling on a destination, saying it is the only realistic way to set the stage for a manned Mars mission given the current budget climate.

“I’m trying to do anything I can to prepare for the eventuality that the nation decides that human exploration, deep-space exploration, is the right thing to do,” Bolden told members of the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board’s  Committee on Human Spaceflight. “And until the Congress and the nation make that decision and decide that they are going to put additional funds in, we’ll continue to develop the technologies needed to do it when called upon.”

However, Bolden acknowledged it has been difficult to generate public interest in the human spaceflight program while NASA is developing hardware  with no deep-space mission anywhere in the agency’s five-year budget horizon. Unlike Cold War-era Moon expeditions, or the roar of a space shuttle liftoff, there is little in a capabilities-based approach for the public to see or get excited about, Bolden said.

“Why is human exploration, exploration beyond Earth orbit, so difficult to sell lacking something like the space shuttle as its marquee item?” Bolden asked the committee. “The public dialogue on exploration, the public dialogue in the United States on science and technology is abysmal. … We are lacking in our ability to articulate who were are and what we do.”

The Space Studies Board’s Committee on Human Spaceflight is due to publish its report in May. The National Research Council established the ad hoc committee in response to the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 — the law that ordered NASA to build the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and its companion Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle using shuttle-heritage hardware program and systems developed under the defunct Constellation Moon exploration program. U.S. President Barack Obama canceled that program in 2010 after a blue-ribbon panel deemed it too costly given NASA’s expected budget. 

Bolden’s question-and-answer session at the Keck Center of the National Academies here took place a few days after Congress ended a 16-day government shutdown Oct. 17 by passing a stopgap spending measure that keeps NASA funded at $16.9 billion through mid-January.

Obama’s 2014 budget request included $17.7 billion for NASA and proposed using SLS early next decade to launch a crewed Orion to rendezvous with a small asteroid relocated near the Moon by a robotic tug.  

The so-called Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), to which NASA still has not formally committed, would use a solar-powered robotic spacecraft, which would launch in the latter half of this decade, to push an asteroid about 10 meters in diameter into a deep retrograde orbit around the Moon. Astronauts in Orion, launched by SLS, would visit the asteroid between 2021 and 2023, William Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, told the committee after Bolden finished speaking.

ARM did not receive a glowing response from Congress. The Republican-controlled House Science, Space and Technology Committee has proposed banning the mission while the Democratic-controlled Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee — which is normally supportive of Obama’s proposals — made no mention of it in the NASA authorization bill it passed this summer.

Gerstenmaier said ARM bears the hallmarks of every pressure the agency faces when planning missions.

“There’s not only the financial consideration but there’s also the political environment,” Gerstenmaier said. “I can’t sell any and all programs in this town. There’s only a finite set of things where there’s enough synergies between congressional desires, administration desires, scientists’ desires, engineers’ desires, in the Venn diagram of my life. ARM accomplished many of those intersections politically, as it did financially.”

NASA has not yet come up with a formal cost estimate for ARM. The mission is based on a concept from the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., which estimated a price ceiling of approximately $2.6 billion. NASA thinks it can do the mission for less.

Meanwhile, Bolden joked that at least one group has been inspired by ARM.

“This has stirred the imagination of every lawyer in the world,” Bolden said. “They can see the dollar signs in trying to figure out, ‘Can the U.S. really do this?’”

Gerstenmaier framed a captured asteroid as something more than a thought experiment for lawyers. Companies with dreams of mining resources in space could hone their technique on the captive space rock.

“If we can get this asteroid in this distant retrograde orbit, it’s available there, it’s accessible there for commercial companies to go to,” Gerstenmaier said. “They can practice their mining techniques. It’s there to be used.” 

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN


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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...