GREENBELT, Md. — The ranking Democrat on the House Science space subcommittee said March 18 she is having a change of heart in favor of NASA’s proposal to send astronauts to a small asteroid by 2025.

“It’s no great secret that I haven’t been the biggest fan of the whole idea,” Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) said in a speech to NASA employees and contractors here at a Maryland Business Roundtable luncheon.

But recently, Edwards saw NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on television describing the asteroid mission to a group of students. The account Bolden gave was “riveting,” Edwards said. By the end of it, the three-term lawmaker said, she was “onboard” with NASA’s plans.

“So I very quickly sent [Bolden] a text message,” Edwards said. “I said, ‘Charlie, I was totally mesmerized by your description of the asteroid retrieval mission and how that could fit in some of the other things that we’re doing.’”

The remark was an about-face for Edwards, who just last year questioned whether NASA’s plans to visit a repositioned asteroid had anything at all to do with preparing humans for a journey to Mars — the destination of choice for many of the agency’s congressional overseers.

NASA says the asteroid mission is a crucial steppingstone to Mars, and has maintained that stance since unveiling the concept last April as part of its 2014 budget request.

The notional plan for the mission, which scientists at the California Institute of Technology’s Keck Institute for Space Studies in Pasadena — who are credited with devising the concept — estimate will cost about $2 billion, is for a robotic spacecraft to launch by the end of this decade and nudge an asteroid about 10 meters in diameter into a stable orbit around the Moon. Then, around 2025, astronauts in the Orion deep-space capsule, launched by the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, would visit the asteroid to collect samples while testing systems the vehicles will need to carry astronauts to Mars. 

Orion and SLS are the hardware remnants of the Constellation Moon-exploration program that U.S. President Barack Obama canceled in 2010. While those vehicles enjoy bipartisan support in Congress, the Asteroid Redirect Mission does not.

For example, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the space subcommittee, continues to view it as a “costly and complex distraction,” according to a March 18 statement from his spokeswoman, Laura Chambers. 

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the full House Science Committee, in 2013 authored a NASA authorization bill that included an outright ban on the mission. That bill passed the committee last year but did not get a vote from the full House. 

In the report accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014 (H.R. 3547), the law that funds the government through Sept. 30, Congress directed NASA to analyze the asteroid mission more thoroughly and provide an official assessment of associated costs and technical risks.

NASA has yet to fulfill that directive. 

In its 2015 budget request, NASA proposed increasing funding for activities relevant to the asteroid mission, including expanded ground- and space-based asteroid scouting, and solar-electric spacecraft propulsion.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center here, located just outside Edwards’ congressional district, has emerged as a key part of an alternative asteroid mission proposed by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Whereas the Keck concept entails capturing a small asteroid using an inflatable bag, the Langley proposal entails chipping a boulder-sized piece from a larger asteroid and bringing that to lunar space for closer inspection. The asteroid from which the boulder would be pried would be roughly the size of Bennu, the 500-meter diameter space rock that NASA’s robotic Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer will visit in 2018.

The Langley proposal would use hardware and software adapted from Goddard’s Robotic Refueling Mission, which has been used to practice on-orbit satellite servicing at the international space station.

In the 2015 budget request it released March 4, NASA said it would select one of the two asteroid redirect concepts for further study around February 2015, the notional release date for the agency’s 2016 budget request.

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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...