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An expert panel appointed by President Barack Obama recommended bypassing the Moon in favour of an asteroid
The next small step for man - and giant leap for mankind - now seems increasingly likely to be bootfall on a lump of rock and metal more than a million miles from Earth.

Even as a rocket designed to help carry astronauts back to the Moon awaits take-off in Florida this week, asteroids have been singled out as the favoured destination for man's return to outer space.

An expert panel appointed by President Barack Obama to assess America's future spaceflight programme last week recommended bypassing the Moon in favour of a mission that sounds as if it is straight out of science-fiction.

The target would be an as yet-unidentified asteroid - one of the countless ancient pieces of debris from the dawn of the solar system that still circle the sun. It might measure just 500 yards across, with a surface area no greater than the Vatican City.

That stop would be a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of landing a man on Mars, the report suggested. But to achieve any such ambition, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) will need an extra $3 billion a year, on top of the $99 billion budgeted for the next decade, the panel warned.

Weather permitting, the agency will on Tuesday launch the super-slim Ares 1-X rocket for an unmanned two-minute test flight. The rocket was originally conceived as a replacement for the space shuttle, which is almost obsolete and will be decommissioned soon. it was also intended as a possible first step to taking American astronauts back to the Moon, after a gap that is already nearly 40 years.

The project could soon be cancelled, however. Instead, the experts have advised the White House to turn to private companies to carry cargo and astronauts through low-Earth orbits - including supplying the International Space Station (ISS) - and allow Nasa to focus its attention focussed on a further-flung final frontier.

That would be a crucial stage in the fast-developing global space race. In the near future, Russia will be a major player as the sole supplier of the ISS after the shuttle is decommissioned.

China is working on plans to develop its own space station by 2020, followed by a possible lunar trip, and India hopes to launch a manned spaceflight by 2015. No other state is close to pursuing its own human space operations.

Thomas Jones, a science author and former Nasa Shuttle astronaut who has conducted a series of spacewalks, is an enthusiastic cheerleader for "mission asteroid".

"It's exciting and exhilerating, and also very promising for scientific research as asteroids are the raw materials for our planets, left over from the time when the solar system was formed," he told The Sunday Telegraph.

Mr Jones, whose latest book Planetology: Unlocking the Secrets of the Solar System was published last year, listed the advantages of switching our attention to asteroids, which have almost no gravitiational field and are likely to be rich in minerals.

Raw materials such as water, nitrogen and phosphorus could be extracted and transported much more easily than any recovered from the Moon, where gravity is much greater. These resources could be crucial for supporting onward missions to Mars.

Reaching an asteroid - probably one on an orbit somewhere between Earth and Mars - could re-establish America's leadership in the space race. Forty years ago, Neil Amstrong's step on to the Moon - that famous "giant leap for mankind" - confirmed that US had surpassed the Sovet Union, formerly the frontrunners in space exploration.

Setting foot on an asteroid may be more complex than landing on the lunar surface. A specially designed landing craft would be required which would in effect "dock" with the asteroid - slowly approaching its surface until it touches, then firing harpoon-type tethers into the ground to hold it in contact, like tent pegs, in the almost weightless environment.

Such a step may not just be a matter of human exploration but also of human survival as scientists believe it is only a matter of time, even if that is measured in millenia, before one such space object will be found to be on a collision course with Earth.

A strike by a medium-sized asteroid could wipe out mankind, so the information that would be garnered by landing on one would be crucial to developing a method of diverting one in the future.

All of this is dependant on securing extra funding for an agency that the panel last week described as "at a tipping point...primarily due to mismatch of goals and resources".

The experts, led by Norman Augustine, former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, delivered a stark warning in the first sentence of its its 157-page report. "The US human spaceflight programme appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory," they declared.

Although the Ares 1-X will be test-launched this week as part of the current Constellation programme to send man back to the Moon, the panel recommends abandoning the rocket as its development is so far behind schedule, despite the $8 billion already invested in it.

Instead, they propose Nasa adopts a "flexible path" approach to more ambitious forays to the final frontier - including fly-bys of the Moon and Mars as well as asteroid visits.

Nasa administrator Charles Bolden said he would meet Mr Obama later this year to discuss the report.

The President is thought to be sceptical about the cost of the space programme, but gave fresh heart to space advocates in a speech about science on Friday in which he declared that innovation was in the DNA of Americans.

Jeff Foust, an aerospace analyst and commentator, said the priority for Nasa was to develop a "sustainable" human presence in space after the prohibitively costly programme of the 1960s.

"We reached the Moon 40 years ago, but it was so expensive that all we could basically do was go there, do some science and leave," he said. "Now we are looking at a series of stepping stone missions, learning what we can along the way."

He predicted that man might be able to visit an asteroid by the mid-2020s, aim for a mission to one of the Martian moons about 2030 and then a few years later aim for the holy grail of space exploration - a trip to the Red Planet itself.

Mr Foust, who edits and publishes the respected Space Review, spoke to The Sunday Telegraph from a meeting of commercial operators at the the world's first private spaceport in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The mood there was predictably upbeat after the Augustine commission's backing for private space businesses to replace Nasa's role in low-Earth operations. But not everybody supported a historic shift in the skies.

"The Constellation programme is one we're committed to and very proud of," said Arizona Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whose husband is a Nasa shuttle pilot. "I don't want to bet the farm for human space exploration and the safety of our astronauts on unproven commercial businesses."