It's that time of year again - the time when the fickle folks of the US Congress begin preparing NASA's budget for the next fiscal year. This year's target is the newly-announced mission to capture a near-Earth asteroid and bring it in for study. In its place, the House bill suggests, once again, that we return to the Moon.
Capturing a nearby asteroid, an idea supported by NASA leadership, was the headline mission of President Obama's new vision for space exploration. Perhaps, then, it isn't surprising that the Republican-led House committee for science, space, and technology has chosen to make these changes. It's distressingly common for Congress to meddle in affairs against the suggestions of experts. Whether it's ordering weapons Army leaders don't want or passing tax breaks economists say we can't afford, it's no surprise Congress is one of the least popular institutions in America.
Space exploration takes a long time. A mission can spend well over a decade from conception to launch and then wait years more to begin collecting data. Timelines of this magnitude simply cannot be sustained in such a combative political environment. Fortunately, outer-planets exploration - the longest type of mission - has thus far remained relatively free from the winds of political whim. If only the manned space program were as lucky. The next-generation rocket SLS, and its accompanying capsule Orion, has languished since the presidency of George W. Bush, allowing private competitors like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to take the lead. Only the International Space Station has really escaped unscathed, and I can only assume that's because it would otherwise fall on us.
I wrote recently about the need for better international cooperation in our exploration of space, yet Congress seems as provincial as ever in its views. Capturing an asteroid and returning it to Earth orbit is probably something only NASA can do right now. China, India, Japan, and the EU are all planning missions to the Moon - let's let them have it. America today has a unique ability to pull off missions with unrivaled complexity, be it landing a Mars rover from a hovering crane or slamming an impactor into a moving comet. Let's revel in that and make use of it - we're only in this position because legislators of eras past were willing to take a chance.