Members of the House of Representatives will discuss, and likely make plans to formally introduce, a NASA authorization bill later today in a hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee. A key element of that discussion will be a provision in a draft of the bill that has been circulating in the space community since late last week that would block NASA from funding work on an asteroid retrieval mission like what it unveiled in its fiscal year 2014 budget proposal in April.
Specifically, the draft bill would direct the NASA administrator to “not fund the development of an asteroid retrieval mission to send a robotic spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid for rendezvous, retrieval, and redirection of that asteroid to lunar orbit for exploration by astronauts.” It would also block NASA from funding programs to search for asteroids less than 20 meters in diameter—and thus targets for an asteroid retrieval mission—until ongoing efforts to detect asteroids 140 meters across or larger are at least 90 percent complete, a milestone that Congress had previously set a 2020 deadline to achieve. A 2010 report by the National Academies concluded that a spacebased telescope, like the B612 Foundation’s planned Sentinel mission, would be needed to achieve that goal.
That language has led to headlines that Congress is opposed to the asteroid retrieval mission. Getting beyond the oversimplification that a draft authorization bill represents the sense of the entire Congress (it seems unlikely a Senate version of the authorization bill, currently under development, would contain similarly restrictive language given the support for the concept previously voiced by Sen. Bill Nelson, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee), the House bill is not as absolute in blocking an asteroid mission as some reports might suggest. Another provision of the draft bill calls for NASA to submit a report on the proposed mission, providing specifics on its cost, schedule, and technical aspects, as well as how it would advance human missions to Mars.
Moreover, NASA, strictly speaking, is not seeking funding for an asteroid retrieval mission in its 2014 budget proposal. The $105 million identified for the asteroid initiative is spread out among several programs in the science, space technology, and human spaceflight mission directorates, and in many cases stand alone. The $20 million for additional asteroid searches, for example, serves scientific and even planetary defense purposes beyond an asteroid retrieval mission, while the $38 million planned for solar electric propulsion development can support missions beyond the asteroid one. That was, in fact, a deliberate decision by NASA because the asteroid mission concept was still in its earliest stages of formulation at the time of the budget rollout. “We decided to preferentially invest in the kinds of technologies we needed anyway,” a NASA official explained back in April.
Agency officials, though, are aware they need to do more to sell the mission to skeptical members of Congress. At an “Asteroid Initiative Industry & Partner Day” at NASA Headquarters yesterday, where NASA announced a request for information for virtually all aspects of the planned mission concept, from asteroid search approaches to capture and redirection technologies, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver played up the “bipartisan support” the agency’s initiative has among members of Congress. Asked, though, about the language in the draft bill, she said there was “a lack of the recognition yet of the importance and value of this mission” among members. “We obviously have not completed our work” in defining the mission and aligning it to key goals, like planetary defense, she said. “I think we really truly are going to be able to show the value of the mission.”