HOUSTON — NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) is poised to play key roles in the asteroid exploration strategy featured in the agency’s proposed $17.7 billion 2014 budget, potentially integrating and coordinating much of the development and execution, according to Administrator Charles Bolden and JSC Director Ellen Ochoa.

Bolden and NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver have stressed in visits this year to NASA’s coast-to-coast field center network that plans to corral a small, yet-to-be-identified Near-Earth Object into a stable orbit near the Moon offer the most affordable approach to pushing beyond low Earth orbit to Mars by the 2030s.

At Johnson, that means leveraging operational and research oversight of the International Space Station through at least 2020, completing efforts with Orbital Sciences Corp. to develop a second U.S. commercial cargo service for the six-person orbiting science lab; supporting the commercial crew transportation initiative led by Kennedy Space Center and preparing the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a cornerstone of the U.S. deep-space exploration strategy, for its first unpiloted test flight in 2014, Bolden and Ochoa said during a May 16 briefing.

“Mars is the ultimate destination for humanity,” Bolden said. “No one can go there, if we don’t go. If NASA does not lead, humanity does not go there.”

NASA’s 2014 spending proposal includes $4.5 billion for Johnson, the most among the agency’s 10 field centers. Still, the traditional lead center for the development of U.S. human spacecraft was shaken as the space shuttle program came to an end in mid-2011, a year after the cancellation of the Bush administration’s Constellation initiative left thousands of shuttle contract workers unable to transfer to a new program.

The proposed budget calls for preparing Orion for an inaugural crewed mission in 2021 that would take four U.S. astronauts to a small asteroid corralled in cis-lunar space by an earlier unmanned probe.

“We had a really positive meeting in which we talked about the really critical role that JSC plays in this budget,” Ochoa, who like Bolden is a former NASA astronaut, told the news briefing. “JSC has been involved for the last several months in looking at the feasibility, how we might carry this out. We will be one of the prime integrators and coordinators, I believe. So there is lots of good work in the budget for the Johnson Space Center.”

But all bets are off if the White House and Congress cannot eliminate sequestration budget cuts, Bolden said. NASA’s budget will fall from a sequester-limited $16.8 billion this year to $16.1 billion in 2014.

“I’m the eternal optimist. But the stipulation I put on everything if the president and Congress are not able to solve the sequester issue, is we are in trouble,” he said. “That is not panic talk. It’s just fact.”