Obama Win Keeps NASA On Asteroid Odyssey

Artist's impression of the launch of NASA's next rocket: The Space Launch System. Click to enlarge this image. NASA
NASA

The re-election means that NASA will stay on course to develop the means to send a manned mission to an asteroid…and Mars.

President Barack Obama's re-election Tuesday night (Nov. 6) means NASA will likely continue along its current path, working to get astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 among other goals.

A change of course for the space agency was possible had Mitt Romney won the presidency, as the Republican candidate pledged to reassess NASA's path forward. But we'll never know what a Romney-revised path may have looked like, for President Obama won the day.

Here's a brief look at some of NASA's larger aims and ambitions, which it should continue to work toward over at least the next four years.

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An Asteroid, then Mars

In 2010, President Obama directed NASA to get astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, then on to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s.

To reach these deep-space destinations, the agency is developing a huge rocket called the Space Launch System and a crew capsule called Orion. NASA hopes the SLS-Orion combo will begin launching astronauts by late 2021.

The Obama Administration has also encouraged NASA to hand over crew and cargo activities in low-Earth orbit to private American companies. The goal is to fill the void left by the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle program, which was set in motion by President George W. Bush back in 2004.

NASA has awarded a total of $1.4 billion in the past two years to firms developing crewed vehicles. The agency wants at least two such commercial spaceships to be up and running by 2017. Until then, the United States will remain dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

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The progress has been faster on the cargo front, with California-based SpaceX completing the first of 12 contracted supply flights to the orbital lab last month with its robotic Dragon capsule.

NASA's cargo deal with SpaceX is worth $1.6 billion. The agency has also signed a $1.9 billion resupply contract with Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. to make eight unmanned flights with its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft. Orbital aims to launch a demonstration mission to the space station in the coming months.

The Moon as Well?

Before President Obama began his first term, NASA was working to put boots on the moon by 2020 under a Bush-era program called Constellation. Obama cancelled Constellation after a review panel deemed it significantly overbudget and behind schedule.

However, NASA remains committed to getting back to the moon using the SLS and Orion, agency officials have said.

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"We just recently delivered a comprehensive report to Congress outlining our destinations which makes clear that SLS will go way beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the expansive space around the Earth-moon system, near-Earth asteroids, the moon, and ultimately, Mars," NASA deputy chief Lori Garver said at a conference in September.

"Let me say that again: We're going back to the moon, attempting a first-ever mission to send humans to an asteroid and actively developing a plan to take Americans to Mars," Garver added.

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