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).