NASA will go to Mars, but not before 'putting a baggie' on an asteroid

The Orion space capsule, along with NASA astronauts Lee Morin, Alvin Drew, Kjell Lindgren, Serena Aunon, Kate Rubins and Mike Massimino pass the presidential viewing stand during the inaugural parade honoring U.S. President Barack Obama January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama was sworn-in for his second term earlier in the day.

Today, the NASA Advisory Council's Human Exploration and Operations Committee will meet to discuss what's next for human space exploration. Right now the answer seems to be Mars, but the first step in getting to the red planet is heading back toward the Moon on the Orion Space craft for a planned practice run. 

Dan Dumbacher, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, says the exercise will involve capturing an asteroid. If that sounds reminiscent of a certain late 90s Michael Bay blockbuster that spawned many a wedding dance to a certain terrible Aerosmith song, it gets better. Dumbacher describes the way NASA will capture the asteroid in the same way dog owners might describe picking up after their pooches.

"You could think of putting a baggie around it -- a large baggie -- and cinching that together, and that's one option," Dumbacher says. "Once we capture the asteroid, then the plan is to use what we call solar-electric propulsion to bring that asteroid back to the stable orbit around the moon where we'll meet up with the crew."

Dumbacher says that though NASA proved it could go to the Moon back when Richard Nixon was president, returning there will provide crucial training for a Mars expedition that would carry astronauts far from Earth.

"Up til now, we have been really working and living in space, but we are close to Earth -- what I would call Earth-reliant," he says. "And, we have this big proving ground between Earth and Mars, and the asteroid is the first one we're going to do some of that learning on, to learn how to live and work in that environment, and learn to be more Earth-independent and less reliant."

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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