By Joel Achenbach — That would eliminate a lot of unknowns. In space missions, unknowns ratchet up costs and create delays. But under Plan B, the target might be an underwhelming boulder the size of, say, a washing machine. Presumably that's not what Obama meant in 2010 when he vowed to send humans to an asteroid.
NASA is in a tricky position, trying to improvise a coherent strategy for human spaceflight even as political winds have shifted dramatically. If NASA is lurching along these days, that's in part because the agency has been jerked around.
NASA has been in difficult transitions before. Doug Cooke, who spent 37 years at the agency before retiring in 2011, remembers the post-Apollo 1970s: "It was scary. You realize that you're not really flying. And it's a vulnerable time."
With the shuttle retired, NASA can no longer launch American astronauts on American rockets, but rather must buy seats at $71 million a pop on Russian spaceships. American taxpayers are sending more than $400 million a year to Russia to launch American astronauts.
The last space shuttle flew in 2011. NASA wants to see American astronauts ride to orbit on commercial spacecraft by 2017, though tight budgets could make that schedule slip by a year or more. Three companies — Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada — are competing for the "commercial crew" contract.
NASA's turmoil dates from the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing the seven astronauts on board. The grieving space community decided to rethink the enterprise of human spaceflight, from the architecture of rockets to the fundamental purpose of launching people off the planet. Many people inside and outside of NASA wanted to get back to exploration, which would mean sending humans beyond Low Earth Orbit for the first time since the late 1960s and early 1970s.