A major goal for NASA's human spaceflight program is to send astronauts to the Moon and beyond in the coming decades. The first missions would focus on exploration of the Moon with the intent of developing the technologies and capabilities to then proceed on to Mars.
However, there are many objects that show promise as future destinations beyond the Moon, which do not require the extensive mission capabilities or durations required for Mars exploration. These objects are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and would undoubtedly provide a great deal of technical and engineering data on spacecraft operations for future human space exploration and serve as stepping stones for NASA’s efforts to reach Mars. A subset of these objects has been identified within the ongoing investigation of the NASA Near-Earth Object Human Space Flight Accessible Targets Study (NHATS).
Information obtained from a human investigation of a NEO, together with ground-based observations and prior spacecraft investigations of asteroids and comets (e.g., Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx), will provide a real measure of ground truth to data obtained from terrestrial meteorite collections. In addition, robotic precursor and human exploration missions to NEOs would allow NASA and its international partners to gain operational experience in performing complex tasks (e.g., sample collection, deployment of payloads, retrieval of payloads, etc.) with crew, robots, and spacecraft under microgravity conditions at or near the surface of a small body. This would provide an important synergy between the worldwide Science and Exploration communities, which will be crucial for development of future international deep space exploration architectures and has potential benefits for future exploration of destinations beyond the Earth-Moon system (e.g., Mars).