If all goes to plan, the Foundation’s Sentinel mission is due to be launched in 2018 and it will take at least five and half years to map the position of asteroids. So even with the most optimistic projections, we won’t know exactly where the asteroids are until 2024. That 2025 deadline for launching a mission to an asteroid doesn’t seem particularly realistic.
Let’s assume it does all go ahead. It’s 2025, the Orion capsule is ready to fly, the astronauts are trained and the destination determined. We gather round our screens to watch the dramatic launch of the first American astronauts to leave Earth orbit in more than half a century. The massive rocket disappears into the sky and heads off into deep space, an asteroid in its sights. Days or weeks pass until they arrive. Some of us follow every moment; most lose interest. Then it arrives.
So what will the astronauts do when they get there?
“They aren’t going to land on the surface, there’re going to be no footprints – the gravity is very low”, says Morrison. “They’re going to touch it? What does that mean? They take their glove off and touch it with their hands? No, that would not be a good idea. Touch it with their glove? Touch it with a pole?” he asks rhetorically. “Scientifically it would be very interesting to find out more about these objects but what the human interaction is, is a little unclear to me.” And me. No-one seems to have tackled the big question: why go to an asteroid?
The reasons for any space exploration are often nebulous. You could argue that the Moon might have mineral potential or be an excellent place to site an observatory. That Mars conceals scientific secrets that can only be unravelled by astronauts or is the first step to human colonies on other worlds.
Fundamentally though any manned mission beyond the Earth is about human endeavour and our spirit of exploration. It’s what humans do – from the dawn of time, we’ve always wanted to know what’s over the hill. If we’re to justify the vast expense of these missions they have to tap into that aspect of human nature – like the pioneering flights of Apollo, they need to inspire.
There are good reasons to map asteroids, to track them, even mine them. But this can be done by robotic missions, and the mining by private companies. Surely the agency that put man on the Moon can aim higher. With the US Presidential election out of the way, now would be a good time for President Obama to shelve the asteroid mission, before it’s too late, and set Nasa a target that is truly inspirational.