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“I think it is THE mission NASA should embrace,” said University of Tennessee aerospace professor John Muratore. “To be successful at this mission, you’ve got to embrace all of the technologies that you need for Mars.”

Critics, including former Apollo astronauts and flight directors, have blasted President Barack Obama for canceling George W. Bush’s plan to return astronauts to the moon. They dismiss talk of asteroid visits.

But that’s because NASA has not done a good job of outlining the fascinating details and explaining why it is important, said astronomer and former astronaut John Grunsfeld.

NASA doesn’t have a story right now,” said Grunsfeld, deputy director at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “Exploration is nothing if not the articulation of a great story.”

The story begins with why NASA would want to go to an asteroid. The agency has sent small spacecraft off to study asteroids over the years and even landed on one in 2001. Just last week, a space probe began orbiting a huge asteroid called Vesta, which lies beyond Mars.

Scientifically, an asteroid is a remnant from the birth of the solar system, offering clues about how our planetary system began. Logistically, NASA wants to go to Mars, but that is distant and more difficult. So the argument is that going to an asteroid is a better testing ground than returning to the moon.

The reason NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and others give is that this mission could save civilization. Every 100 million years or so an asteroid 6 miles wide _ the type that killed off the dinosaurs_ smacks Earth, said NASA Near Earth Object program manager Donald Yeomans.

If NASA can get astronauts to an asteroid, they can figure out a way of changing a potential killer’s orbit. They’ll experiment with the safe one they land on, Braun said.

One joke going around is that dinosaurs couldn’t stop catastrophe because they didn’t have a space program.

“One of the statements going to an asteroid will make is that humans are smarter than dinosaurs,” Grunsfeld said.

If you are going to reroute a killer asteroid, first you have to know one is coming and where it is now. And that’s also a problem for NASA’s mission. Astronomers figure there are about 50,000 asteroids and comets larger than 300 feet in diameter and they only know where fewer than 1 percent of them are, Yeomans said. NASA is focusing on rocks that size or larger that would come relatively close to Earth in the 2025 time frame.

At the moment, there are only a handful of asteroid options and they all have names like 1999AO10 or 2009OS5. NASA deputy exploration chief Laurie Leshin figures NASA will have to come up with, not just more targets, but better names.

Getting to one will be even tougher.

Huge powerful rockets are needed to launch spacecraft and parts out of Earth orbit. NASA promises to announce its design idea for these rockets by the end of the summer and Congress has ordered that they be built by 2016. It will take two or three or maybe even more launches of these unnamed rockets to get all the needed parts into space.

The crew capsule is the farthest along because NASA is using the Orion crew ship it was already designing for the now dead moon mission and repurposing it for deep space. NASA has already spent $5 billion on Orion.

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