Obama win should keep NASA's asteroid, Mars plans on course

President's reelection likely to preserve $58 billion in funding

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No one knows how the federal government's space agency would have fared under a President Romney -- though it's not hard to imagine a smaller budget and more privatized space exploration and research efforts.

But the re-election of President Barack Obama on Tuesday likely preserves NASA's current plans, which include sending Americans to Mars by the mid-2030s.

The Mars goal is the second part of a two-step mandate from Obama to NASA in 2010, when he directed the agency under a new law to land astronauts on an asteroid near Earth by 2025 and to send a manned mission to orbit Mars about a decade after.

That law, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, budgeted $58 billion in funding from fiscal 2011 to 2013. In addition to the asteroid and Mars goals, it specifically calls for:

* The construction of a rocket powerful enough to launch astronauts on deep-space missions to nearby asteroids, Mars and beyond. Target date for deploying the Space Launch System is 2021.

* An increase in the involvement of private U.S. corporations in low-Earth orbit activities. Basically the law directs NASA to use the private sector to fill the role left vacant by the recently retired space shuttle program. NASA has several multibillion contracts with private companies launching cargo into space.

* A return to the moon to "explore the expansive space around the Earth-moon system," a NASA official said in September, as reported by Space.com's Mike Wall.

I don't get that last one. Just months before the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 was passed, President Obama said in a speech at Kennedy Space Center:

I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. So I believe it’s more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach -- and operate at -- a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward. And that’s what this strategy does.

I agree. And yet we're planning to go back, according to Space.com's Wall, who writes that NASA officials apparently are considering "setting up a manned outpost beyond the moon's far side, both to establish a human presence in deep space and to build momentum toward a planned visit to an asteroid in 2025."

Maybe it's best to be cautious, but this strikes me as an unnecessary and wasteful space goal. There's nothing interesting on the moon. We've been there before. If we're going to do space, let's do it boldly. Anything less is pointless.

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