NASA spending rises to a pre-sequestration level of $17.7 billion under President Barack Obama’s proposed 2014 budget and holds steady in outyear projections, essentially casting off the current fiscal year deficit-reducing rollback to fuel an accelerated asteroid encounter by astronauts.

The spending plan also holds target dates for initiating a new U.S. commercial crew orbital transportation capability, as well as launching the James Webb Space Telescope and second Curiosity-style rover to advance Mars sample return goals — some of NASA’s most visible post-shuttle activities — in 2017, 2018 and 2020.

Embedded prominently in the spending plan forwarded to the House and Senate on April 10 is a $105 million down payment on an ambitious and yet-to-be-priced effort to identify and robotically corral a small asteroid into an orbit around the Moon in time for a 2021 visit by U.S. astronauts.

They would launch and fly aboard the new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and Space Launch System (SLS), which also are funded to hold previously established test flights dates, including the late 2014 unpiloted Orion orbital Exploration Flight Test, the unpiloted Exploration Mission-1 test flight of the SLS-MPCV combination in 2017; and the 2021 flight of Exploration Mission-2, which would place a crew aboard the SLS/MPCV combination for the first time to visit a lunar orbiting asteroid.

The mission offers new urgency for NASA’s post-shuttle ambitions to restore a human deep-space exploration capability lost as Apollo came to a close four decades ago, while beginning to equip global leaders with capabilities to fend off the collision threat posed by near-Earth asteroids. It places scientists and the commercial sector closer to the Solar System’s building blocks as well as potential resources for future space development, according to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

In 2010, Obama directed NASA to visit an asteroid by 2025, as a first step in reaching the Martian environs with explorers a decade later. “There will be naysayers all over,” Bolden acknowledged in a White House budget briefing. “As details of the mission and its concept become available, it represents an ingenious way for us to respond to a challenge the president issued to NASA,” he noted. “One of the serendipitous results from this flight, we hope, will be the ability to deflect an asteroid.”

Bolden pointed to the unanticipated Feb. 15 explosion of a small asteroid over Russia that sent more than 1,000 people to area hospitals with blast-related injuries, and the passage of the larger asteroid 2012 DA 14 within 18,000 mi. of the Earth later the same day.

NASA’s international partners reacted with interest, and some skepticism, to the asteroid-capture idea. While Japan, Germany and the European Space Agency (ESA) all have missions to asteroids and other near-Earth objects in the works, space agency chiefs attending the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs weren’t sure how it could apply to the NASA plan.

“Everything sounds very nice,” says Johann-Dietrich Woerner, head of the German Aerospace Center (DLR). “It’s a pioneering work, for sure it will have outreach, but I would ask the question ‘why’ before I would start a new project. For Germany, on the technologic basis and the scientific basis, I’m sure that we could have our part in that.”

Hideshi Kozawa, a senior advisor to the new president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Naoki Okumura, noted that Japan already has returned samples from an asteroid on its Hayabusa mission, and is developing Hayabusa-2. “It’s a good chance for Japan to show our technology to other partners,” he says.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, the ESA director general, noted that ESA and DLR are partners in the Rosetta mission, which will land on a comet next year, and said ESA might want a role in the U.S. mission.

“This is a very interesting project, and as I already told Charlie Bolden, we are ready to see how ESA can contribute to such a mission,” Dordain says.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology committee, was among the first to cast doubt on the mission’s political viability.

“Hardworking taxpayers are tired of watching the government borrow and spend money it doesn’t have,” said Smith. “While getting points for creativity, a proposed NASA mission to ‘lasso’ an asteroid and drag it to the Moon’s orbit will require serious deliberation. Seemingly out of the blue, this mission has never been evaluated or recommended by the scientific community and has not received the scrutiny that a normal program would undergo.”

The multiyear cost of the venture to identify and robotically capture and maneuver a 500-ton asteroid into a stable lunar orbit for a visit by U.S. astronauts as soon as 2021 could become clear later this year. Agency officials believe the $2.6 billion cost attached to a similar mission proposal developed by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at CalTech last year can be reduced substantially by a combination of activities already under way within the agency.

“We have had to make some really tough choices with this budget,” Bolden noted in introductory remarks. “But we think we have done our best to make really prudent decisions and that NASA will be using its resources strategically for a unified, cohesive exploration program that raises the bar for what humans can achieve.”

However, he emphasized the blueprint unravels quickly if Congress and the White House are unable to eliminate sequestration in 2014 and the outyears. “I don’t do magic,” Bolden stressed when he was questioned about the agency’s future by a House appropriations panel last month.

The impacts of sequestration and a smaller rescission reduced proposed NASA spending of $17.7 billion in 2013 to about $16.6 billion when applied against the budget Continuing Resolution agreed to by Congress and the president in March. NASA’s operating plan for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 with more precise estimates will be presented to lawmakers by May 10.

NASA’s science mission directorate would lead all spending in the agency, with $5.02 billion, vs. $5.11 billion from the 2013 estimate, followed by space operations, with $3.88 billion vs. $4.25 billion, as spending on the shuttle program ends; exploration, $3.9 billion vs. $3.8 billion; cross agency support, $2.85 billion vs. $3 billion; space technology, $742.6 million vs. $577 million; aeronautics, $565.7 million vs. $573 million; and education, $94.2 million vs. $137 million, as the administration consolidates a 13-agency focus on science and math education.

As envisioned in the 2014 spending plan, the asteroid retrieval mission would engage the Science, Space Technology and the merging Exploration and Space Operations directorates to select an appropriate asteroid; mature a solar-electric propulsion technology to reach and retrieve the space rock; develop strategies for rendezvousing with, securing and maneuvering the unstable object into a lunar orbit around the second Earth-Moon Lagrange point; and devise a human mission plan.

Additional funding in 2015 and beyond would lead to the selection of a destination asteroid in 2016 and the launching of the robotic retrieval three years later.

Obama’s proposed budget seeks $821 million within the exploration account for the development of commercial crew transportation services in support of the International Space Station by 2017. Without that amount, NASA will be forced to rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to carry astronauts to and from the station, Bolden said.

The James Webb Space Telescope, once over budget and behind schedule, was rebaselined two years ago. The $8.8 billion designated successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is on schedule for an October 2018 launch. The $658 million in Webb funding for 2014 would be spend on integration of the four major instruments, further assembly of the optical systems and prelaunch testing.

For continuing, through-the-day coverage of the U.S. budget rollout, Aviation Week Intelligence Network subscribers should click here to visit our Fiscal 2014 budget digest page often, where the Aviation Week editorial team will post expert coverage and analysis.