NASA'S Real-Life Armageddon: Obama Budget Funds Capture of Asteroid

PHOTO: Asteroid captureAdvanced Concepts Laboratory/NASA
NASA is developing a first-ever mission to identify, rendezvous with, capture and redirect a small asteroid into a stable orbit in the lunar vicinity, and then send humans to visit it using the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft.

In its latest venture, NASA is taking a page from the script of a Bruce Willis blockbuster.

The White House is looking to turn science fiction into science fact. In the 1998 box-office hit "Armageddon" a group of oil drillers are hired by NASA to stop an asteroid the size of Texas from hitting Earth.

Buried in President Obama's new budget plan released on Wednesday is $105 million to identify a small asteroid, capture it, and relocate it near the moon, according to an official familiar with the proposal.

"We were surprised to find technically this is well within our reach to do," said Tom Jones, a former veteran NASA astronaut and research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.

The first step would be to identify an asteroid big enough to get a spacecraft to but small enough to manage in the event NASA lost control while moving it. If that worst case scenario did happen, the hope is that the asteroid would burn up before reaching the Earth's atmosphere. Ultimately, the plan would be to one day send a manned space mission to the asteroid.

One official is dubbing it the "boldest, most ambitious American space mission" since President John F. Kennedy first challenged the nation to go to the moon.

On April 15, 2010, President Obama called for a mission to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 after canceling plans for a manned mission to the moon.

NASA is already working on building a rocket and capsule to take astronauts further than the moon--perhaps as far away as Mars. To travel that distance will mean developing new technologies to power the spacecraft, since there are no gas stations in space.

Still, in an age of austerity, there are sure to be fireworks in Congress over a $105 million proposal to chase down space rocks. The first test may come Wednesday afternoon when the Space and Technology Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives discusses potential threats from space, following a meteor crash over Russia in February.

Currently NASA's budget for identifying and tracking asteroids is roughly $20 million. The new funds, if approved, would double the money. But some space analysts believe this new mission could also help solve the money problems NASA has been struggling with, by potentially moving space exploration into the hands of private entrepreneurs.

"If the current budget is flat or declining NASA will go nowhere," said Jones, who helped co-author a 2012 Keck Institute study about asteroids that caught the White House's attention. "This could be the dawn of space mining. We have finite resources on earth and this program might open the door for businesses interested in exploring space."