Key Constituencies Still Not Sold on NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission

In this concept image, the robotic vehicle deploys an inflatable bag to envelop a free-flying small asteroid before redirecting it to a distant retrograde lunar orbit. (Credit: NASA)
In this concept image, the robotic vehicle deploys an inflatable bag to envelop a free-flying small asteroid before redirecting it to a distant retrograde lunar orbit. (Credit: NASA)

It’s been four years since President Barack Obama announced that NASA would send astronauts to an asteroid sometime in the mid-2020’s. And more than a year has passed since the space agency unveiled a plan to retrieve said asteroid and return it to the vicinity of Earth so the astronauts wouldn’t have to travel so far.

And yet, NASA still faces an uphill battle to sell the mission to skeptics in Congress and the scientific community. Opposition to the plan surfaced again last week from multiple quarters, raising questions about whether the mission will survive after Obama leaves office in January 2017.

The NASA Advisory Council is urging NASA to conduct an independent cost and technical estimate of the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) before moving forward.  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) released a statement urging the Obama Administration to take that recommendation seriously.

“Contrary to this administration’s rhetoric, the President’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) has many skeptics within the scientific community,” Smith said. “And the experts who advise NASA recently stepped up their criticism. The NASA Advisory Council warns that NASA ‘runs the risk of squandering precious national resources’ if they move forward with ARM.  One expert, Mr. Tom Young, went so far as to say that the ARM proposal ‘dumbed down NASA.’ For months, the Obama administration has downplayed such criticism. I appreciate the good work of NASA’s technical advisors and encourage the Obama administration to take their recommendations seriously.”

Others were even more critical of the plan than Smith. A prominent asteroid expert tore into ARM during a gathering of the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) on July 30.

“If you get behind this in any way, it’s going to irreparably damage small-body exploration, and I think there’s implications to the broader [NASA] Planetary Science Division,” Richard Binzel, an astronomer and asteroid specialist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the group.

Calling the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) the White House hatched in 2013 to satisfy U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2010 challenge to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 a “one-and-done stunt,” Binzel warned SBAG members that embracing ARM meant risking their credibility in the eyes the lawmakers who control NASA’s purse strings. SBAG and the science community at large, he said, should “just say no” to the mission.

The NASA-charted group represents the interests of scientists who study objects as small as interplanetary dust and as large as tiny moons, such as Mars’ two natural satellites, Phobos and Deimos. A 10-person SBAG steering committee is responsible for distilling the larger group’s discussions into reports — but not recommendations — for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

SBAG has been more diplomatic in its official statements than Binzel, but it’s clear the group doesn’t think the human mission is the best use of resources for exploring asteroids. In a July 30 draft report, the SBAG ARM Special Action Team reported that NASA’s efforts to better refine the mission over the past year have not been convincing [my emphasis added]:

Though this report provides input to aid assessments of the ARM robotic mission concepts, previous findings by SBAG that relate to ARM are also still valid. In particular, the finding from he SBAG 9 meeting in July 2013 as related to planetary science states:
“While the SBAG committee finds that there is great scientific value in sample return missions from asteroids such as OSIRIS-REx, ARRM* has been defined as not being a science mission, nor is it a cost effective way to address science goals achievable through sample return. Candidate ARRM targets are limited and not well identified or characterized. Robotic sample return missions can return higher science value samples by selecting from a larger population of asteroids, and can be accomplished at significantly less cost (as evidenced by the OSIRIS-REx mission). Support of ARRM with planetary science resources is not appropriate.
The SBAG ARM SAT continues to support this and other previous SBAG findings.

For more details, download the draft report or this PowerPoint summary of it.

* ARM was previously known as Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM).

  • therealdmt

    Jeesh. To SBAG: they’re going to do human spaceflight anyway. Why not get some benefit out of it.

    Their protest is like if lunar scientists had been against Apollo. Yes, a longer term, more sustainable lunar science program could have been designed around robotic exploration, but scientists learned more in a few years from Apollo than would have been learned in a very long time otherwise. And again, the nation was sending humans to the moon anyway. It was a political endeavor, with science as a very pleasant side benefit. Might as well get while the gettin’s good. There’s certainly no guarantee that a big budget for a comprehensive, sustained, government-funded asteroid exploration program will emerge anyway.

    As for Rep. Smith and his cohorts, well, IF we’re going to do SLS/Orion, we might as well do the asteroid redirect. I’d much rather we cancel SLS/Orion and open things up to competition a la the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, but if we’re going to plunge ahead with SLS anyway and no payloads are funded, the only other thing we can realistically do in the next 7 or so years is an Apollo 8 style lunar orbit mission. Actually, that would be cool too – I think we should do both if we’re determined to continue SLS

  • therealdmt

    To Rep. Smith and his cohorts: well, IF we’re going to do SLS/Orion, we might as well do the asteroid redirect. I’d much rather we cancel SLS/Orion and open things up to competition a la the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, but if we’re going to plunge ahead with SLS anyway and no payloads are funded, the only other thing we can realistically do in the next 7 or so years is an Apollo 8 style lunar orbit mission. Actually, that would be cool too – I think we should do both if we’re determined to continue SLS. And more. But the budget doesn’t seem to be there and its a very inefficient way of operating anyway — we REALLY should cancel SLS (but that’s not Rep. smith’s point).

  • Paul451

    they’re going to do human spaceflight anyway. Why not get some benefit out of it?

    I believe their criticism is based on a desire to repulse the attempts to “share costs” with NASA science centres. Ie, to pull the already shrinking science budget in to help pay for SLS/Orion.

    They aren’t against sample return missions, but even the robotic portion of ARM is much larger and more complex (and hence more expensive) than is required for a purely robotic sample return mission. Therefore you could fly many purely robotic sample returns for the cost of that single robotic component of ARM; even ignoring the cost of the actual HSF/Orion part. So why should “we” (science) be made to pay for it just because “they” (HSF) deign to give us one poxy sample?

    Not just larger and more complex, but more restrictive: The constraints of that capture-return (all so that Orion astronauts have a pretend destination) severely limit the quality of science that can be done. You are limited to asteroids small enough and close enough to be flown intact to lunar orbit, vastly restricting the population compared to a mission that only has to return the mass of robotically gathered samples, not the whole frickin’ asteroid.

    [There’s a variant of ARM which proposes “plucking a boulder off the surface of a larger asteroid” and returning that to lunar orbit, in order to expand the candidate pool. But how many other sites on that asteroid the probe will sample? Zip. A purely robotic mission of the same size would be able to bring back hundreds of samples from all over the asteroid.]

    And lastly, it effectively prevents any alternative asteroid mission of any kind until SLS/Orion is flying, with a risk that ARM will end up being cancelled anyway. NASA management will not allow a cheaper robot mission before ARM flies. That means that any delay in SLS/Orion (which is inevitable), will also delay any non-ARM asteroid mission. This happened with the Shuttle, when science missions perfectly capable of being launched on EELV or foreign launchers were forced to wait (at great expense) for a suitable Shuttle flight.

  • Paul451

    I’d much rather we cancel SLS/Orion and open things up to competition a la the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs,

    Indeed, heavy-lift and BEO follow-ons from COTS would be fun.

    And a guaranteed bounty for asteroid sample returns. Lower for surface samples, higher for core samples (deeper the core, higher the bounty.) Higher for rarer types of asteroids. Higher still for comets and lunar pole shadow-craters.

  • windbourne

    With smith backing this, it makes it very suspect. The fact is, that he is one of those that are pushing SLS and working to gut commercial space.
    However, with that said, I have to say that I agree with the NAC.
    While I believe in this project and think that it is exactly the kinds of projects that NASA should be doing, we need to know real costs on this.

  • windbourne

    I like the idea.
    Those are ones that are ideal for private space.

  • windbourne

    Hmmm.
    I do not share you pessimism on this. The fact is, that if done with private space, it can be done cheap.
    And the engineering/science required to rope up an asteroid is non-trivial. The amount of new engineering would enable a whole new slew of tugs and ideas for doing this. Ideally, it would lead to NERVA being done.

    And as to the science, well, that asteroid could be studied for decades and still yield loads of new information.

  • mfck

    Just imagine the piles of crashed probes on the Lunar poles ))))

  • billsimpson

    With Musk getting off the ground with his reusable rockets, he will make enough money to put the NASA manned space exploration out of business within 15 years. Congress will reason that with all he is doing up there, why spend a lot of taxpayer money on it. They will ask why use taxpayer money to do what this private company does far cheaper. NASA will become a scientific space research agency, doing things like trying to land a rover on Titan or on Jupiter’s moons. Sample return might become a big part of their business. Unfortunately, that is the way I see it. I hope I’m wrong, but politicians aren’t known for their great vision.