WASHINGTON — NASA’s new plan to explore the solar system is unusual for several reasons. For starters, the $2.6 billion mission is itself odd: NASA wants to send a robot to capture an asteroid and drag it near the moon so future astronauts can fly a new spaceship to visit it.
As strange is the story of how the concept became reality.
It wasn’t born at NASA headquarters but instead is credited to a 20-something scientist from Italy who dreamed up the idea while working stateside for influential U.S. space activists, including Lou Friedman of The Planetary Society.
“I was introduced to the idea by a young intern,” Friedman said. “First of all, I thought it was crazy.”
But the intern, Marco Tantardini, was persistent and ultimately got Friedman’s backing — so much so that the two men later anchored a 2012 study that became the foundation of the new policy, which the White House officially will unveil Wednesday.
“Success has many fathers, but Marco certainly is one,” said Friedman, who noted a similar concept was being studied at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Still, he said, Tantardini was a “passionate” advocate who won over skeptics.
Reached by phone in Cremona, Italy, Tantardini, 28, said he came up with the idea while studying the possibility of mining an asteroid. NASA’s post-space-shuttle struggles compelled him to expand the concept. Now his biggest desire is to see the plan succeed — and then one day join it.
“I would like to get in the loop of the exciting adventure if it gets big,” said Tantardini, who now works as a self-described “entrepreneur.”
Whether Tantardini gets the chance first depends on Congress, which will get a first look this week at the proposal. The White House included $105 million for the project in its 2014 budget.
It envisions launching a probe in 2017 to capture a 25-foot, 500-ton asteroid. The probe would drag the asteroid to a point near the moon so NASA astronauts could attempt a visit as soon as 2021.
The unorthodox idea already has champions in U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, Florida Republicans who voiced support this week.
“I’m intrigued by the concept,” Posey said. “I think it has merit to it.”
But NASA will need many more backers in Congress, and the first real test is expected Wednesday when the House science committee meets to discuss U.S. space policy.
The committee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, so far is staying neutral.
“He still wants to see more details from the president’s budget proposal and speak with experts within the space community before he officially weighs in on the proposal,” said Zachary Kurz, a committee spokesman.
But there’s already talk among staff members that the asteroid mission has a tough hill to climb.
“It should be a late-night punch line, not a mission,” said one House Republican staff member not authorized to talk on the record. “Imagine being a member of Congress trying to explain this to your constituents.”