NASA still doesn’t have the means to send astronauts into space without the aid of the Russian space program, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t already planning for the next step in human space exploration. The underfunded mission to the moon that the Bush administration’s Vision for Space Exploration promised may be out, but the Obama administration has set a mission to a near Earth object (NEO) as the next goal for America’s space program. They may not have a way to get there yet, but the mission to the asteroid named Itokawa is already well into the planning stages.
Right now, NASA’s Desert Rats program for technology development is busy training astronauts aboard a simulator of the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) with a computer generated Itokawa as its target. We are still about 7 years out from having all the hardware that would make this kind of mission a possibility, but NASA is wasting no time in shaking out the kinks in their mission simulators. Dr Igor Lisov, a Russian spaceflight expert tells Space Daily that due to the characteristics of Itokawa, every bit of prep work could be helpful for the mission.
In 2005, Itokawa was studied in some detail by a Japanese probe…It is a 530-metre potato-shaped rock with a very uneven gravitational field. Accordingly, studying the conditions on it could be helped by computer simulation.
A mission to an asteroid may not be quite the giant leap that the moon landing was, but it will help to develop some of the technologies that would be useful on a long trip to Mars. It has been suggested that any Mars mission needs to first be preceded with a much simpler mission to one of the red planet’s moons in order to fully work out the kinks of long distance space travel without having to worry about landing on the surface of Mars. The vetting of technologies on an Itokawa mission would provide a pretty good excuse to skip this rather expensive extra step and go straight on to a Mars landing for the next mission… that is, whenever NASA could find the money for it.
Whether or not you think that an asteroid mission is a logical next step on the way to Mars, I think we can all agree that the MMSEV simulator looks pretty freakin cool.