In an August 15, 2013 interview with the Washington Post which mainly dealt with his approach to management, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden had some interesting things to say about the space agency’s current plan to snag and asteroid and bring it to lunar orbit to be visited later by astronauts. He was addressing critics who suggested that the plan would not meet President Obama’s mandate to visit an Earth approaching asteroid in a deep space mission.
“And this is subtle. I have this discussion with my science friends all the time and those who are purist. The president said by 2025 we should send humans to an asteroid. What he meant was, you should send humans to somewhere between Mars and Saturn, because that’s where the dominant asteroids in the asteroid belt are. But no, he didn’t say that. He said: humans to an asteroid.
“There are a lot of different ways to do that. There are probably thousands of ways to do it. I think we have come up with the most practical way, given our budgetary constraints today. We’re bringing the asteroid to us.
“And so whether I put an astronaut on an asteroid that’s in lunar orbit or put an astronaut on an asteroid that’s still in orbit around the sun between Mars and Jupiter, I don’t care. What’s important is: Have them there.”
The president said, in his April 15, 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center, “And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we’ll start -- we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.”
It was understood at the time that Obama was proposing an expedition to an Earth approaching asteroid, one whose orbit intersects that of Earth. Such asteroids are not only targets for asteroid miners, such as Planetary Resources, but also are considered a danger to Earth with the threat of a collision such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 or so million years ago.
The references to “between Mars and Saturn” and “between Mars and Jupiter” were more than a little confusing. That apparently refers to the main belt of asteroids where minor planets such as Ceres and Vesta lay and the Dawn space probe is currently exploring. Up until now no one read into Obama’s speech that NASA should send astronauts to the main belt, between 130 and 140 million miles from Earth’s orbit.