Commentary: Houston, It’s one step backward for mankind

It was 43 years ago this week that the United States launched its third mission of lunar exploration, a mission that is more famously known as Apollo 13. Because of an explosion on one of the rocket’s oxygen tanks, Apollo 13 became the second most famous moon mission, after Apollo 11’s landing on the moon in 1969, thanks to the successful return of the three astronauts to earth. After Apollo 13 failed to accomplish its mission, there would be four more successful moon landings till 1972 when the United States turned its attention from the moon.
In the past, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) looked at returning to the moon with the Constellation program of the late 2000s; however, that program was cut in favor of other space programs.
On April 6, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson from Florida revealed a program that would use a robotic spaceship to capture a small asteroid and park it near the moon. The asteroid, it is argued by proponents, would provide a place for astronauts to train for future missions to Mars or the moon.
Nelson, the head of the senate science and space subcommittee, told the Associated Press that President Obama has set aside $100 million in the 2014 budget for the asteroid project to get underway.
The robotic ship would be ready to capture a small asteroid by 2019 with crews of four astronauts practicing exploration on it by in 2021.
“It really is a clever concept,” Nelson told the AP. “Go find your ideal candidate for an asteroid. Go get it robotically and bring it back.”
I won’t argue his point that it’s a clever concept. It would be a great moment for the United States if we became the first nation to successfully pull an asteroid close enough to our planet for the purpose of training astronauts. It would be another feather in America’s space exploration cap and another place for further international collaboration in space.
However, I think there are better ways to prepare future astronauts for exploration of Mars or the moon. The robotic space ship and the ability of astronauts to do space walks on asteroids will be this era’s version of the Saturn V rocket that took man to the moon from 1969-72 and the moon landings that inspired a country.
But the question remains: is bringing an asteroid closer to earth or the moon for study really pushing the envelope as much as those pioneers of the Apollo program?
Rather than trying to bring an asteroid closer to us, which could lead to potential problems if said asteroid got loose and headed for earth or the moon, we should be trying to develop a craft that takes humans to the asteroid. We have always tried to be on the cutting edge of innovation, but this idea, while unique, isn’t really that innovative. We aren’t going farther than the moon and we aren’t getting any closer to Mars. Instead, we are settling for close-by exploration. The asteroid program wouldn’t be continuing the tradition of exploration that has always been part of the American experience, it would be creating a new tradition of armchair voyaging, which in that case, really doesn’t seem like exploration at all.

Stephen Whitaker
Managing Editor