WASHINGTON - It's been a while since NASA's been known as a place for space cowboys.
But the nickname could make a comeback if the space agency can pull off a new mission that even supporters admit sounds buck-wild: corralling an asteroid with a spacecraft so future astronauts can go visit it.
Obama administration officials said the operation has the potential to jump-start a human exploration program that has floundered since the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle. The White House will include $105 million to begin work on the project in its 2014 budget.
"This mission will send humans farther than they have ever been before, and (it would be the) first ever redirection of (an) asteroid for exploration and sampling," noted NASA officials in a mission outline presented to Congress this week and obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.
If lawmakers approve, the plan calls on NASA to launch an unmanned spacecraft as soon as 2017 on a mission to "capture" a small asteroid and drag it near the moon, possibly to a point roughly 277,000 miles from Earth where competing gravitational forces would allow it to "sit" there.
Astronauts, riding a new NASA rocket and capsule, then would visit the asteroid as early as 2021.
"If the American people are excited about it, they (lawmakers) will be, too," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., adding that he thinks the public is "fascinated" with asteroids, thanks to disaster movies such as "Armageddon" and recent near-misses that real space rocks have had with Earth.
But the plan faces several hurdles - and not just the rocket science.
Foremost is convincing Congress, and a skeptical public, that spending an estimated $2.6 billion on the mission is a worthwhile investment. That's in addition to the $3 billion annually that NASA already devotes to building its new Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule.
Then there's the basic question of why.
"You have to get over the first shock, and I'm worried editorial writers will be like: 'Huh? You lost your mind?'" acknowledged Lou Friedman, who co-authored a 2012 report that suggested the idea. "But if you get into it, (the mission) is as audacious as sending humans to the moon. I think it will restore confidence in America's technological capability and NASA's can-do spirit."
As proposed, the asteroid mission would begin with research - $78 million in 2014 to begin design work on the robotic spacecraft that would capture the asteroid, and an additional $27 million to begin searching the cosmos for an asteroid to grab.
The ideal rock would be 20 to 30 feet in diameter and weigh 500 tons.
A 2012 study done by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, a think tank based at the California Institute of Technology, envisioned a small probe that would launch aboard an Atlas V rocket.
Once in space, it would use its solar-electric engines to cruise to an asteroid and then attempt to capture it in a cup-shaped container described as an "inflatable asteroid capture bag."
The Keck study estimated the whole operation could take six to 10 years, although NASA officials insist they can do it sooner to meet their 2021 deadline of a human mission.