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Congress Concerned As NASA Begs Private Sector To Help Catch An Asteroid

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter

Congress is worried about the sky-rocketing costs and limited scientific benefits of a NASA mission to capture and redirect a near-Earth asteroid by 2021.

NASA published a request for aerospace contractors to save the Asteroid Redirect Mission by accepting private sector-provided payloads and technical expertise. House Republicans and some within NASA, however, are questioning the rationale behind redirecting a harmless asteroid to orbit the moon.

“The Asteroid Redirect Mission has been panned by almost every NASA Advisory group and expert panel,” Texas Republican Rep. Brian Babin, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Space, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Its costs have grown, its schedule has slipped, its rationale has been disputed, and its benefit to future exploration is questionable.”

“This is an uninspiring mission without a realistic budget, having recently exceeded the $1.25 billion cap placed on the program,” echoed Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, who chairs the committee that oversees NASA. “It has no certain launch date or ties to existing exploration goals.”

NASA plans to launch a probe in 2021 and then drag an asteroid near the moon. In 2028, NASA will send astronauts to retrieve samples from the asteroid. The space agency is confident the asteroid will not hit the Earth. But Babin and Smith aren’t convinced.

“It is a mission that is without the consensus necessary to make it a reality the remaining months of the Obama administration,” said Smith.

NASA didn’t exactly explain why it’s opening up the mission to private space corporations, but Spaceref.com notes the mission’s projected costs increased from $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion. The government claims the mission’s budget will be extremely limited. Scientists have repeatedly stated that the mission is uninspiring and scientifically pointless.

Dr. Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), presented a scathing takedown of the mission. Binzel called it a “dead end,” “not a science mission,” and even said it would destroy NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

“It is a dead-end mission with a tenuous future,” Babin said. “The Obama Administration should stop forcing the mission on NASA and let scientists and engineers propose missions that will advance deep space exploration.”

NASA hasn’t launched an astronaut into space for five years without Russian cooperation because President Barack Obama cut the agency’s spaceflight capability. Obama threatened to veto NASA’s attempts to build rockets, and tried to divert space exploration funding into global warming programs. Two senators even accused the Obama administration of leaking information to the press about the Mars programs.

Deep Space Industries (DSI) plans to probe an asteroid in 2017 to see if it’s suitable for mining, the company’s CEO told TheDCNF. DSI believes it can sell air, building material, water and propellant in space cheaper than launching them from Earth.

Another private space company called Sierra Nevada began testing the world’s first private, pilot-less space shuttle late last month. The company plans to send the shuttle into space in late 2019. NASA has a contract to use Dream Chaser to resupply the International Space Station by carrying cargo, and eventually people, up to it. Further development of the shuttle includes a manned version that would be capable of carrying up to seven people to and from low Earth orbit.

SpaceX, Boeing and several other companies have made huge advancements in reusable rocketry in recent years, which has the potential to greatly lower the costs of getting into space.

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