May 31, 2013

The concept of identifying and capturing an asteroid that keenly interests us, then moving it out of its existing orbit to near the moon for hands-on research, is quirky, brilliant and exactly what we need to do at this point in our nation's history.

This mission uses the vehicles and spacecraft that are already being funded, designed and built right now, without requiring an additional major infusion of cash for significant new destination hardware.
Grabbing a celestial body and moving it was once science fiction. Now it is real, it is achievable, and we must seize the opportunity, while we are developing the much-needed technologies and capabilities for longer-range manned missions to farther-out destinations in the solar system.

This nation and its next generation of explorers need a dream they can trust will be there for more than just a few years. The vision of going to the moon or Mars is important, for all of us, but program and career decisions need to be based on reality.

Apollo was inspirational and historic, but it was a blank check from Congress to NASA that we will not likely ever see again. That is a cold but immutable fact. For the U.S. space program, the laws of Congress are no less relevant than the fundamental laws of physics.This commentary is not about why America should eat its vegetables, but why this asteroid strategy is truly exciting, meaningful and just flat cool.

NASA in general and Kennedy Space Center in particular have long pursued the technology to use the resources available beyond Earth. Developing the capability to use what the solar system provides is a challenge that will excite seasoned engineers and young minds alike. This project does that in a most profound way.

This asteroid strategy will require much of this nation's technical brain trust and industrial base. It will demand new technology with serious and long-term applications, it will result in more launches, and sooner, of American astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, and it shrewdly taps into a growing public and scientific interest in near-Earth objects and planetary defense.

Exploration and exploitation are becoming parallel tracks of research and development, if not becoming outright indistinguishable. The private sector, the true power of the American economy, is fast investing serious resources in this nation's space program — not only in the technology of launch vehicles but also in commercial exploitation of space resources.

Before those investments can begin returning profits, paying taxes, and generating American jobs, the sticky issue of property rights in space will need to be addressed. International space treaties on property rights are currently ambiguous at best and often openly hostile to the concept. This must change for all the obvious reasons.

This asteroid strategy enables this issue to come to the attention of the international community sooner rather than later. If the U.S., or a consortium of nations under our leadership, moves an asteroid from one location to another, how is it not now our property? Are there thorny issues to address here? Yes, but let's do it on our terms instead of waiting for the Chinese to do it and then complaining from the sidelines.

This idea is the perfect reflection of the innovation and responsiveness we so expect of our space program. We are building hardware to go beyond the Earth, but our budget crisis and congressional stalemate will not allow us to reach the moon or Mars for the foreseeable future.

Not unlike the many challenges it has confronted on many a mission before, NASA has proved it can turn an obstacle into an opportunity — an opportunity to keep the dream alive for this nation, and our next generation of explorers and entrepreneurs.

Frank DiBello is president and CEO of Space Florida, the state space development agency.