NASA has a new budget, and a new vision for space exploration. Plans include sending human crews to an asteroid, as a first step toward Mars.
By capturing an asteroid, researchers hope to train for a human-led deep-space mission. NASA is considering two plans to acquire the space rock. One idea is to divert an asteroid as it passed near our home world. Another option is to break a large asteroid in two or more pieces, and capture one of the fragments, bringing it to a stable orbit, near Earth.
Space agencies would then be able to send space travelers to the asteroid, to practice landing on the miniature worlds. The mission is expected to cost $133 million, out of a total budget of $17.46 billion.
While scientists have their vision set on the Red Planet, many lawmakers prefer a return to the Moon.
Other programs funded by the new NASA budget include $3.05 billion for the International Space Station (ISS), as well as further development of the Orion multi-purpose vehicle. This spacecraft is designed for the next generation of deep-space exploration by humans. Development of the Space Launch System rocket to bring Orion to space received $2.78 billion.
For now, most Americans traveling to space are getting there aboard rockets managed by foreign nations. NASA pays the $70 million to Russia each time an American travels to the ISS aboard one of their craft. This is paid for by the $848 million Commercial Crew Program, which is also funded under the current budget.
The James Webb Telescope - the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope - will also receive $645 million in continued funding over the next 12 months. Engineers are currently manufacturing the mirrors for the space-born observatory. That mission is scheduled for launch in October 2018.
NASA funding for fiscal year 2015 is $185 million dollars lower than it was the previous year. That is a cut of just slightly over one percent. The current budget is still $600 million over fiscal year 2013. They space agency may also secure $900 million as part of a special Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative.
One project cut from the current budget is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). NASA was working on the airborne telescope with the German Aerospace Center.
Managers of the space program, including Administrator Charles Bolden and Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson held press conference on 4 March, to discuss the budget. The asteroid mission was noted as a highlight of NASA's current vision.
"This initiative represents an unprecedented technological feat -- raising the bar for human exploration and discovery, while helping protect our home planet and bringing us closer to a human mission to one of these mysterious objects and building deep space capabilities needed for future missions to Mars," the researchers told reporters during the conference.