By Joel Achenbach — NASA has what might be called middle-age problems. Founded 55 years ago, America's civilian space agency had its greatest glory in its youth, with the moon shots, and it retains much engineering talent and lofty aspirations. But even as the agency talks of expanding civilization throughout the solar system, it has been forced to recognize its limitations.
Flat budgets have become declining budgets. The joke among agency officials is that, when it comes to budgets, flat is the new up.
NASA lacks the money and the technology to do what it has long dreamed of doing, which is to send astronauts to Mars and bring them safely back to Earth. It has resorted to fallback plans, and to fallbacks to the fallbacks.
Thus was born this improbable Asteroid Redirect Mission.
The human spaceflight program has long been searching for a mission beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). That's where NASA has been sending astronauts since the 1970s, and where the underappreciated international space station circles the planet, currently occupied by two Americans, three Russians and an Italian.
The asteroid mission not only goes beyond LEO, it scratches many other itches at the agency. NASA has marketed this as planetary defense — a way to get the upper hand on asteroids that could potentially smash into Earth. The agency also has said this could boost the commercial mining of asteroids for their minerals, thus expanding humanity's economic zone. And the robotic part of the proposal involves new propulsion technology that NASA thinks could be crucial for an eventual human mission to Mars.
There are also political factors. President Barack Obama vowed in 2010 to send humans to an asteroid. NASA officials have said this mission meets that goal.
Most important, the ensnared asteroid would provide a destination beyond LEO for new, expensive hardware that NASA is already building: the big rocket called the Space Launch System and the Orion crew capsule. The mission could deflect accusations that the government is building rocket ships to nowhere.