In the 1998 movie "Armageddon," NASA discovers an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. It sends a spaceship armed with Bruce Willis out to greet the threat.
This year, the real NASA announced it wants to grab an asteroid of its own -- but not to save the planet.
“Ultimately our goal is to go to Mars,” says Robert Lightfoot, NASA's associate administrator. “Going to an asteroid is the next real logical step to go do that.”
It may not be as bold as John F. Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon, but President Obama is promoting his own space odyssey: To land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025. Then reach Mars in the following decade.
Under NASA's current plan, a robotic spaceship would travel to a small asteroid and place a bag-like structure around it as the rock hurtles and spins through space. The craft would then drag the asteroid to the moon's orbit, close enough to Earth for astronauts to fly out and visit.
Lightfoot says the goal is test deep-space technologies that NASA would need for a trip to the Red Planet. And, all this on an asteroid about the size of a school bus.
Congress may not buy into the mini-asteroid mission.
“It seems to me, it's not a good use of the taxpayer's dollars,” says Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “It doesn't help us get to Mars, and it doesn't really help us learn more about large asteroids that we might want to deflect. So it just doesn't serve any purpose.”
A Senate committee approved the asteroid-capture plan this summer, but Smith's committee stripped it from proposed NASA funding.
“This is an era of budget constraints,” he says. “This is a mission that experts say will cost $2.5 billion, so it may fall from its own weight.”
The actual price tag is a matter of debate. But whatever the bill, private companies might be willing to help NASA out -- if they get what they want. They want to park themselves on asteroids, to mine metals, hydrogen and oxygen. Space companies would use these natural resources to make rocket fuel and spare parts, which could service spaceships on their way, for instance, to Mars.
“It’s an oasis and a gas station in all in one,” says Rick Tumlinson, a founder of Deep Space Industries, a futuristic mining company. The company's website proclaims: “It is time to begin the harvest of space.”
Tumlinson says NASA could offset its asteroid-program costs by partnering with private companies.
“We can not only do it far cheaper,” he says. “We can also begin to create a new economy that develops new resources and new jobs and begins to inject new wealth back here into the world.”
Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, another asteroid mining company, are to present their ideas at a NASA workshop later this month. Congress will vote on NASA's 2014 budget later this fall.
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Egypt's protests have lessened for now, but the country is still suffering the economic consequences of violence that left hundreds dead following the military's ouster of deposed president Mohamed Morsi. Cairo's streets, usually bustling at all hours, are now empty overnight due to a government-imposed curfew.
One sector feeling the effects of the ongoing state of emergency: transportation. Egypt's railways have been suspended for weeks, meaning passengers are left to find other ways to travel. Some people still show up at Cairo's central train station, surprised to find doors locked and blocked by police. Neither they, nor a customer service representative answering the railway's hotline, have much information for frustrated customers.
“We still don't know when it will open,” said the man answering the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) hotline. “You'll find out from the TV.”
ENR says it's lost more than 10 million dollars due to the suspension, and much of that business is going to microbus drivers. Just outside the train station, there's a hectic depot where drivers of the small minvans shout out their destinations, trying to lure thwarted train passengers.
One woman, who didn't want to give her name, trudged away from the closed station, only to be set upon by drivers offering to take her to her intended destination -- the coastal city of Alexandria.
“It's ok for me to take the bus in these circumstances we are living,” she said. “But before this, I prefer the train.”
The microbus drivers may be getting more customers, but some, like 30-year-old Mohamed Hassan, said they're not really making much more money.
“After the protests, things started to get better,” he said, reclining on one of the three rows of red pleather seats in his white microbus.
“But,” he added, “The influence of the curfew is that passengers are no longer travelling at night.” That means he has less time to make trips, and fewer people are traveling.
That restriction is also affecting businesses. Robert Tashima, Africa Regional Editor for the Oxford Business Group, says about 90 percent of goods in Egypt are shipped by road, many of which are now clogged by checkpoints.
“When you're unable to ship products overnight,” he said, “when you've got highways and motorways and bridges that are blocked, you will obviously have a direct impact in terms of the cost of shipping products and your revenues.”
Botht eh public and the private sectors are feeling the impact of this seizure in the transportation system. One local shipping company told state media here it was losing 50 percent of its revenues each day during the worst of the curfew. Egypt's metro system is also losing money... about $70,000 a day when the curfew is at it strictest.
The government is responding by pushing the curfew back to 11 p.m.-6 a.m., from the original 7 p.m.-6 a.m. in mid-August. The exception is Fridays, a traditional “protest day” here, when people still have to be inside by 7 p.m.
Despite all the short-term losses, Oxford Business Group's Tashima expects things to eventually calm down for businesses.
“While Egypt won't suddenly find itself seeing double-digit growth anytime in the next 24 months,” he said, “Certainly the potential for long-term growth remains fairly unabated.”
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