"This could help guarantee the successful deployment of many untended facilities to other targets in the future by bringing what humans do best: dealing with the unexpected and improvisation," Sykes said. "In the meantime, great science could also be achieved, but this is strictly bonus…not a rationale."
This could be done on the timescale envisioned by President Obama, Sykes said, with some initiative and little additional cost, and far less total cost than any other option.
Live off the (space) land
Existing Discovery mission proposals are on the table to fly a Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer-class spacecraft that would identify many NEO resource targets in orbits that would afford low-energy, short-duration missions, Sykes said.
Additionally, resource recovery experiments could be undertaken on the International Space Station using meteorite samples and other analog materials, Sykes said.
"Apollo taught us that doing something once or even a few times is no guarantee that it will ever be done again. If we want a permanent American presence in space, we need to learn to live off the land," Sykes said.
"Near-Earth objects are our best opportunity to accomplish this cost-effectively," he concluded.
Asteroids within reach
There's no lack of asteroids to focus upon, said Lindley Johnson, NEO Observations Program Executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Johnson noted that he doesn’t speak for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) and not in a position to be able to say anything about the priorities for piloted/human spaceflight missions.
"I just know HEOMD has a great challenge to be able to build the basic capabilities needed for future human spaceflight with the budget prospects they’ve been given," Johnson told SPACE.com.
"But we also know there are a lot of near-Earth asteroids out there between here and Mars and we still see them on the horizon for the future of exploration. Maybe somewhat beyond this next hill we must climb, but they are still out there for us to reach for," Johnson said.
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