By Joel Achenbach — Meanwhile, Garver, the NASA deputy administrator who has been a driving force behind the mission, is headed for the door. She announced this month that she's leaving the agency for a position with the Air Line Pilots Association.
Although NASA has publicly talked of an asteroid rendezvous in 2021, the idea has a fundamental problem. That is the first scheduled mission with a crew in the new Orion capsule. Officials in charge of getting astronauts home safely do not sound eager to conduct a shakedown cruise that involves complicated spacewalking and an interaction with a bagged asteroid in orbit around the moon.
Mark Geyer, the Orion program manager, said: "I think it's clear that there's more risk in doing the asteroid mission on the first flight with people. In general, you'd rather activate the systems and test them first."
He added: "We don't set policy here on Orion. Our job is to meet the mission."
In recent days, NASA officials have suggested that they could delay the asteroid mission until later flights of the Orion capsule.
NASA has certain things going for it, including a track record of doing hard things very well.
"There have been 12 humans to walk on the surface of the moon. Guess what? Every single one of them was an American," Bolden said recently. "Only one nation has successfully put something that operates on the surface of Mars. Guess what? That's the United States."
NASA employees tend to be intensely loyal to the agency, and many are lifers. The average age of NASA civil servants is 47.6. Most of the people working on NASA projects are contractors; thousands have seen their jobs disappear with the retirement of the shuttle.
The transition to the post-shuttle era is nowhere more obvious and more poignant than at the Kennedy Space Center. Officials at Cape Canaveral say they're optimistic and talk about creating a 21st-century spaceport. They point to the fact that the Orion capsule is under construction on the space center grounds.