The best two things you can say about this video NASA just posted of its proposed asteroid capture mission is that it’s insanely cool to watch and it will cost you only 4 minutes and 42 seconds of your life. The worst you can say is that it will cost taxpayers billions of dollars in development costs before it is ultimately discarded as unworkable, impractical and—not to put too fine a point on it—ridiculous.
The unlikely plan, announced in April by Fla. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and said to be included in a $100 million appropriation in President Obama’s 2014 budget, is for an unmanned spaecraft to be launched by 2017 to capture a 25-ft., 500-ton asteroid with, yes, a giant drawstring bag. The rock would then be towed back to the vicinity of the moon where it would be safely parked in space. In 2021, astronauts would travel out to the asteroid in a brand new Apollo-like spacecraft lofted by a brand-new heavy-lift rocket. Once there, they would land, prospect for metals and learn more about both living off the cosmic land and deflecting rogue asteroids that might threaten Earth.
If you can get out to the asteroid in the first place, why would you tow it back to Earth instead of just collecting some samples of it and bringing it home? You wouldn’t. If you want to learn about living off the land, why would you pass up the infinitely more interesting, infinitely more available moon, which has a richer mineral make-up and even has water ice. Again, you wouldn’t. The good news is, we won’t.
This idea is of a piece with a manned space program that has been adrift for years and shows few signs of finding its way. The Apollo-like Orion spacecraft and the Saturn V-like Space Launch System are extremely promising projects and both are slowly creeping toward completion. When they’ll actually fly is impossible to say. Where they’ll fly has yet to be determined. The fever-dream of an asteroid capture mission will run its course. When it does, more sensible and scientifically inspiring destinations can then be chosen.