Congress, NASA

Asteroid mission plans in the House’s crosshairs

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.”

36 comments to Asteroid mission plans in the House’s crosshairs

  • Jeff Foust wrote:

    It would also block NASA from funding programs to search for asteroids less than 20 meters in diameter.

    According to Wiki, the Chelyabinsk meteor was 17-20 meters in width.

    So the House space subcommittee would have forbidden NASA from preventing a Chelyabinsk incident.

  • Hiram

    It’s important to understand in all this the difference between the ARM (Asteroid Retrieval/Return/Rendezvous Mission) and the recently announced “Grand Challenge”. The latter is to protect the Earth. The former is to grab and visit an asteroid. The dance that NASA is doing is that the latter somehow needs the former. No, they aren’t saying that explicitly, but that’s the body language. The setup is that the former will evolve quietly into the latter.

    But the American public should know better. The Congressional language we’re hearing here, that NASA should concentrate on finding dangerous asteroids instead of finding capturable (and quite non-dangerous) asteroids is revealing. It’s the former that most clearly impacts quality of life. In their many times questionable wisdom, the House subcommittee smells a rat.

    Lori Garver was correct when she said at the briefing yesterday that Congress is still being cultivated about ARM. The conceptual picture of a NASA ARM was released just a few months ago, and just one hearing has addressed it. So the lack of support for ARM in the draft Auth bill mainly comes across as a big challenge to NASA, and NASA has a difficult marketing job to do. I am skeptical that this will be successful.

    Now, this Authorization bill is aimed at two years of NASA activity, so if ARM isn’t blessed in it, it’s going to slow that project down considerably. A compromise between a supportive Senate bill and an unsupportive House bill might authorize funding for it, but probably at a lower level of fiscal commitment than it needs. At least the bump-up of investment in detection is part of the FY14 NASA budget, and should be widely praised in this bill. One would hope that this detection experiment has, as it’s prime design goal, detection and identification of threatening ones, rather than capturable ones. To the extent that the best design will do both equally well, there is no policy argument, but I’m not so sure that’s the case.

    • E.P. Grondine

      Hi Hiram –

      “The Congressional language we’re hearing here, that NASA should concentrate on finding dangerous asteroids instead of finding capturable (and quite non-dangerous) asteroids is revealing.”

      You are obfuscating again, Hiram.

      The small ones show up in the searches for the big ones. Always have, always will.

      Speaking about smelling a rat, I note the Texas representatives being vocal about manned flight to Mars.
      I will point out that SpaceX is planning to launch from Texas. My guess is that Texas and California will have a tough time trying to convince the leadership of other states to support that.

      Aside from that, it is clear that planetary defense and NEO astronomers no longer have to sit at the back of the NASA bus. Those days ended with a bang in Russia which was heard aroung the world. There is no point in you continuing to try to present the budgets as “separate by equal”, when the total NEO detection budget is less than 1/1,000th of the the cost over-runs on Ed Weiler’s Space Telescope.

      • Hiram

        “The small ones show up in the searches for the big ones. Always have, always will.”

        The available search volume for the small ones is a lot smaller than for the big ones. It depends on the imaging sensitivity. Yes, all the small ones may eventually show up, but they have to be more optimally placed in order to do so. Always have, always will. In order to assess rotation, which is fabulously important for capture but is irrelevant for threat assessment and probably even for deflection, you need a different set of detection requirements. If I detect what I think is a small asteroid, and I take lots of observing time carefully assessing its rotation rate, that’s time I’m not spending looking for the bad guys.

        I have to say that you’re just blathering. Your “separate but equal” quotation isn’t any quote from me. I’m not even sure what you’re talking about. The NASA NEO detection budget is vastly less than JWST, as it is for almost any NASA mission and associated overruns, because it is not as important as those other missions to the NASA charter. Perhaps NASA’s charter needs to be changed to give threat detection a higher priority, but you’re just whistling dixie if you’re assuming that NASA will spend lots of money on stuff it wasn’t chartered to do. The large ground-based telescopes that are presently being used for the threat detection aren’t even run by NASA.

        As to planetary defense folks sitting in the back of the bus, if we eventually spend several hundred $M/yr on ARM, while we’re spending ten times less than that on asteroid threat detection, planetary defense folks aren’t even in the back of the bus, but are being dragged behind it on a rope. That may well be better than being ignored entirely though! Again, you must be furious that putting handprints on a small rock is taking precedence over detection of big ones.

        • E.P. Grondine

          Hi Hiram –

          “If I detect what I think is a small asteroid, and I take lots of observing time carefully assessing its rotation rate, that’s time I’m not spending looking for the bad guys”

          You must know that detailed rotation studies would only be done on the small ones found that are correctly placed for retrieval. And as you know, given the small field of view required, observing time on the Hubble could accomplish those studies very quickly…

          “The NASA NEO detection budget is vastly less than JWST, as it is for almost any NASA mission and associated overruns, because it is not as important as those other missions to the NASA charter.”

          And to be honest, did you not work earlier on a “cosmological” space based telescope?

          I guess that may explain how you missed the earlier modifications of NASA’s Charter made back in 2005 specifically instructing them to deal with this hazard.

          In any case, it always was a task within NASA’s charter.

          Hiram, you have absolutely no expertise in this area on which to state that this task is not as important as other NASA tasks. Your most recent statement on the impact event which killed off the mammoth demonstrates that completely.

          As far as Weiler insisting that it is not NASA’s responsibilit, read my review of Weiler’s activities here:
          http://abob.libs.uga.edu/bobk/ccc/ce091702.html

          Do I need to remind you yet once again that those cost overruns on the Space Telescope belong solely to Weiler?

          Your opinion differs from mine, but in my opinion anyone in the leadership who is identified as opposed to protecting this nation from sshhh..tuff from space is going to get hammered in the general press. I hope they do not repeat your obfuscations, as they are likely to be roughly corrected.

          This new phase has started, and I am embracing our future in space, not trying to wish it away.

          Facts always win.

          I am looking forward to the day when I too can say, “Funded at last! Funded at last! Thank God almighty, we’re funded at last.”

          • Hiram

            Heh. Running hard.

            It was not “always a task in NASA’s charter”. That’s just fantasy.

            Yes, assessing the danger from large asteroids was put in NASA Authorization by amendment in 1994, more than forty years after the creation of the agency. NASA was told “to the extent practicable”, to “identify and catalog” dangerous asteroids. Of course, “the extent practicable” is determined by the funding they were given to do it. They were given bread crumbs. That limp funding they were given painted an abundantly clear picture of the priority that Congress gave that task for NASA. The fact that NASA didn’t do it in the decade they were told to do it in never created, in Congress, any consternation. Oh, “cosmological space telescopes” have hugely higher priority to Congress. Money speaks.

            “Hiram, you have absolutely no expertise in this area”

            I beg forgiveness that I have not written any books on this topic. I admit that. You have written one, to my knowledge, and it was self published.

            “Do I need to remind you yet once again that those cost overruns on the Space Telescope belong solely to Weiler?”

            Did Ed have an affair with your wife or something? You really hate him, and you don’t want anyone to forget it. The problems with JWST were the result of many mistakes by many people. If you want to know about them please go educate yourself. Go read the ICRP report.

            I tried to slog through your why-I-hate-Ed-Weiler essay. Your curious fascination with the Monica Lewinsky episode did give me some laughs.

            “Your opinion differs from mine, but in my opinion anyone in the leadership who is identified as opposed to protecting this nation from sshhh..tuff from space is going to get hammered in the general press.”

            Well, I don’t think anyone wants to get hit by “sshhh..tuff”, which sounds pretty yucky. You won’t find anyone who is opposed to impact mitigation, including here. You’ll find a lot of people who aren’t particularly scared about that “bang” in Russia, though. By the way, the recent “bang” in West, Texas killed far more people than did the one in Russia.

            “This new phase has started, and I am embracing our future in space, not trying to wish it away.”

            What I’m trying to wish away is a future in space that simply offers touching a small rock, and pretending that that touch serves a national need.

            “I am looking forward to the day when I too can say, “Funded at last! Funded at last! Thank God almighty, we’re funded at last.”

            That’s what they said about Constellation. Thank God almighty.

            Now that it’s come to praising God, we probably need to tie this up. I’ve got work to do.

            • E.P. Grondine

              Here’s 2010, nearly the same as 2005:

              g) Warning and Mitigation of Potential Hazards of Near-Earth Objects.–Congress declares that the general welfare and security of the United States require that the unique competence of the Administration be directed to detecting, tracking, cataloguing, and characterizing near-Earth asteroids and comets in order to provide warning and mitigation of the potential hazard of such near-Earth objects to the Earth.

              So let’s see, the Administration now reports to the House their answer, and Texas house members object? They want more money for SpaceX, now that its launch facilities are in Texas?

              • E.P. Grondine

                And hee it is from 1958:

                “b) The Congress declares that the general welfare and security of the United States require that adequate provision be made for aeronautical and space activities. The Congress further declares that such activities shall be the responsibility of, and shall be directed by, a civilian agency exercising control over aeronautical and space activities sponsored by the United states except that activities peculiar to or primarily associated with the development of weapons systems, military operations, or the defense of the United States (including the research and development necessary to make effective provision for the defense of the United States) shall be the responsibility of and shall be directed by, the Department of Defense: and that determination as to which such agency has responsibility for and direction of any such activity shall be made by the President in conformity with section 201 (e).”

            • E.P. Grondine

              EP: “Do I need to remind you yet once again that those cost overruns on the Space Telescope belong solely to Weiler?”

              Hiram: “The problems with JWST were the result of many mistakes by many people..”

              Yes, starting with AASS Weiler. I don’t hate Weiler; its just that I have a tough time with anyone who wastes billions of dollars, while doing his best to shirk his duties.

              I have a particularly tough time with bureaucrats who spend other agencies money, hoping that somehow the other guys are going to do what they themselves are supposed to be doing.

              “Well, I don’t think anyone wants to get hit by “sshhh..tuff”, which sounds pretty yucky. You won’t find anyone who is opposed to impact mitigation, including here.”

              Jeez, and here I thought you obfuscation of facts was well thought out, and it turns out it is just due to ignorance of the field.

              For example, not once have you mentioned the need for space based detectors to deal with this, Hiram.

              Eltist snob that I am, I kind of like the idea of B612 fund raising with multi-millionaires.

              But there is no reason why NASA can not buy and launch a copyu of SENTINEL.

              So far dealing with NEOs has been done on a bipartisan basis, but that was before “real” money was involved.

              To sum up, Smith is the one who will have to face his constituents and colleagues on this.

              • Hiram

                Where do I start … ?

                What I said was “That limp funding they were given painted an abundantly clear picture of the priority that Congress gave that task for NASA.” NEO detection has been given paltry funding by NASA. That paltry funding is how Congress salutes their own words about the importance of impact mitigation. You just don’t get it, do you. The evidence is there in black and while, and especially dollar numbers that Congress believes it has done what needs to be done.

                “Yes, starting with AASS Weiler. I don’t hate Weiler”

                You fill your replies here and in previous posts with snarky comments about him. Ed Weiler very certainly dominates your consciousness in an unhealthy way. It may not be hatred, but there is some obsession and loathing. Take your pills. Ed was actually highly respected at NASA and in the science community. What respect do you command that allows you this snark?

                “For example, not once have you mentioned the need for space based detectors to deal with this, Hiram”

                There are a lot of things I didn’t mention. Get used to it. How many studies of photon background, closed cycle cooling, observing cadence, and diffraction losses have you mentioned? C’mon, get with the program!

            • Bennett In Vermont

              Damn, nice rebuttal.

              All of them.

              :-)

    • DCSCA

      “Lori Garver was correct when she said at the briefing yesterday that Congress is still being cultivated about ARM.” says Hiram.

      That’s make work chatter by her– the ”party line’– and you’d expect nothing else. Thing is, Congress isn’t gonig to buy it, especially now that it’s moved into the orbit of late night comedians. The House isn’t going to hand the Obama Administration any ‘wins’ unless it has to. ‘And that’s the way it is,’ to borrow a line from the late Walter Cronkite. Project Lasso is as dead as Apollo 13′s service module. Apologies for any and all typos.

  • Derek

    NASA should approach Diamandis and his PRI team to drum up some inspiring PR in regards to why developing systems for capturing and redirecting asteroids are so important for building infrastructure in space. Making space pay is the only viable way we’ll be abler to compel ourselves beyond cis-lunar space.

    That being said, NASA really does need to drum up some real numbers on the cost/benefit and timetable of the project…

  • GOP won’t fund a moon project either so don’t hold your breath on that.

    This has nothing to do with space policy. This GOP would rather waste a trillion tax dollars than agree with a good Obama program. If they can own asteroid retrieval politically and the corporate powers bless it, then it will happen with them, otherwise next political cycle it may happen without them.

    • Coastal Ron

      sftommy said:

      GOP won’t fund a moon project either so don’t hold your breath on that.

      And they didn’t get any support from the two people testifying today – both of them recommended against going back to the Moon, if the goal really is Mars.

      Specifically, Thomas Young, the former executive vice president of Lockheed Martin, said:

      I do not believe that landing on the moon or operations on the moon is a prerequisite to going to Mars,” Young said. “Given Mars as the focus, it’s not necessary. It’s probably a significant resource consumer that will take away from the time and effort to go to Mars.

      However they also confirmed what most of us already know:

      When asked how soon astronauts could potentially set foot on Mars under NASA’s current budget constraints, Thomas Young says the outlook is bleak.

      “With the current budget, bear with me, I would probably say never,”

      If all of that is true, why are we building the biggest rocket in the world if we can’t afford to use it? Certainly not because we need it…

  • Aberwys

    Authorization does not mean Appropriations. A lot can be said, but what matters is where the money goes, as enacted into law.

  • DCSCA

    “[Garver] said there was “a lack of the recognition yet of the importance and value of [the asteroid retrival] mission…”

    Lori, Lori, Lori…. on the contrary; Congress, Americans aware of the proposed mission and late night comedians recognize how hilariously ‘unimportant’ the proposal is. Project Lasso is as dead as Apollo 13′s service module. NASA doesn’t tell Congress what it wants to do; Congress directs NASA to do what it’s told.

  • Robert Clark

    Thanks for that, Jeff. Good political analysis.

    Bob Clark

  • josh

    i couldn’t care less. what’s important is commercial crew. everything else doesn’t matter when it comes to nasa hsf since nasa can’t get it done anyway.

  • James

    Thomas Young had this to say about NASA Leadership:

    “Today, leadership of the civil space program is diffuse and authority is vested in organizations , while important, that do not have the expertise to be in a controlling role. This is a prescription for mediocrity whether it be an organization of great national importance, an industrial corporation or a local community organization”

    He goes on to say it is from this kind of leadership the ARM has emerged

    What is he talking about here? That JSC is not a ‘development culture’, but a mission ops culture? (vs. GSFC or JPL), or is he saying the White House and Congress are attempting to lead?

    Any thoughts on his prepared statement?

  • A M Swallow

    Any report on planetary defense will need to have a section showing what damage has been done by meteors in the last 100 years.

  • I’ve posted yesterday’s hearing on YouTube at:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9I3a_Iv9R4

    Dana Rohrabacher’s remarks are priceless. He begins at 58:42. Once again, he uses the “tooth fairy” metaphor and throws in the “SLS Titanic.” Great stuff. The lone voice of sanity on that panel.

    A couple other links from Tuesday …

    NASA’s asteroid initiative industry and partner day is at:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaZuldT-xA4

    Charlie Bolden, meanwhile, was in Vienna at the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs for a conference, to drum up international support. Audio only, but that event is at:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJnEygspiYU

    I’m starting to think the strategy here might be to do an end-run on the House. As someone here reminded us earlier, the House adopted the Senate’s version of the 2010 authorization act, blowing off their own committee’s version.

    I will say this for the House committee. At least their members show up for hearings. On the Senate side, it’s usually just Nelson and Cruz.

    • The NASA administrators should acknowledge that if even the NASA rank and file don’t support it then something’s wrong.

      Stephen C. Smith said:
      I will say this for the House committee. At least their members show up for hearings. On the Senate side, it’s usually just Nelson and Cruz.

      Maybe that’s why this Senate “committee” is for it. ;-)

      Bob Clark

      • Coastal Ron

        Robert Clark said:

        The NASA administrators should acknowledge that if even the NASA rank and file don’t support it then something’s wrong.

        NASA is not a democracy. If NASA employees don’t like what NASA is being funded to do, then they have the ability to do something about it – leave. Too much second guessing is bad for everyone involved. I’m sorry, I just don’t countenance that kind of behavior.

        That said, I’ve always said that the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) was a product of those that were trying to find a use for the SLS, not that it made sense to do. It doesn’t help us get to Mars, nor is it the best use of funds if we’re truly interested in making sure that we don’t get hit by an asteroid.

        So if the ARM is an effort to find something useful for the SLS to do, and the SLS is a byproduct of Congressional interference into NASA’s goals (NASA didn’t want an HLV yet), then Congress has no one to blame but themselves for this ARM proposal. That’s where NASA employees should be directing their displeasure.

        • E.P. Grondine

          Hi CR –

          You have to look at the tankage, engine, structures, control systems, integration and launch systems for SLS separate from ATK. Those are important national assets.

          The best way to protect those assets is by tying them to something extraordnarily important. Though the usual space “enthusiasts” disgree, ARM does exactly that.

          • E.P. Grondine

            Corrected copy:

            BTW, I have seen multiple guesses here as to the origin of the ARM, along with attacks on Lou Friedman, who some space “enthusiasts” now view as a “heretic”. Without citing any sources, I will simply state here that they have been wrong. You cna believe that or not.

            Overall, ARM provdes the necessities for planetary defense. If you have a better way on accomplishing all of those, let’s hear it.

            Once again, I apologize for all of the typos and grammatical errors.

            • Coastal Ron

              E.P. Grondine said:

              Overall, ARM provdes the necessities for planetary defense.

              Grabbing the easiest asteroid possible is not an indication we can defend the planet from any asteroid.

              As proposed, the ARM is a pretty inefficient way to do ANY planetary defense.

              If you have a better way on accomplishing all of those, let’s hear it.

              Focusing on detection is the most important part, since if you don’t know what’s coming (and when) it doesn’t matter what you spend on mitigation.

              However asteroid detection is not yet a high enough priority for our political leaders, so I don’t expect much funding for doing even detection. I think we should do more, but until the politicians agree, it won’t happen.

              • A M Swallow

                Grabbing the easiest asteroid possible is not an indication we can defend the planet from any asteroid.

                It is a start. Once we can successfully grab the easiest asteroid we can then learn to deal with harder ones.

                Lots of things to learn:
                How to make an asteroid detection system.
                How to operate an asteroid detection (and warning) system.
                How to build a spacecraft that can fly to the asteroid. (Even if we choose to nuke the asteroid we need the above.)

                Guidance system that can rendezvous with the asteroid, including matching speed and direction.
                Mechanical system able to bag the asteroid. (Solid asteroids can simply be pushed but one containing dust or loose boulders needs bagging.)

                Guidance system and RCS able to fit the bag around an asteroid.
                The ability to stop the asteroid spinning – so we can direct it.
                Rockets and guidance system able to fly the asteroid to EML-2.

                Then the science mission to inspect the small asteroid.

                How to pay for these 3 missions.

              • Coastal Ron

                A M Swallow said:

                Once we can successfully grab the easiest asteroid we can then learn to deal with harder ones.

                I doubt that our mitigation strategy for asteroids on a collision course with Earth will involve sending humans to somehow do something, like in the movies.

                Humans are too fragile to send on such missions, and I think we’ll only send robotic systems. If that’s the case, then learning how to lasso an asteroid and bring it into Earth’s orbit doesn’t do anything to help future asteroid mitigation.

          • E.P. Grondine

            I need to add here that the use of a HLV for distant interception leaves time for a “second shot” with less powerful launchers. It also may allow the use of non-nuclear paylaods.

            I do not think there is a better mission for an SLS test flight than ARM.

          • Coastal Ron

            E.P. Grondine said:

            You have to look at the tankage, engine, structures, control systems, integration and launch systems for SLS separate from ATK. Those are important national assets.

            E.P., as I’ve said before, ATK is not a major consideration in the SLS program, and is likely to be completely locked out int he future.

            And no, none of those things you mentioned are “national assets”, they are just pieces and parts of an unneeded rocket, and as designed likely will never be used on any other launch system in the future.

    • DCSCA

      “I will say this for the House committee. At least their members show up for hearings. On the Senate side, it’s usually just Nelson and Cruz.” muses Stephen.

      Considering they’re not legislating much, what else do they have to do on their short work weeks. Besides, the CSPAN cameras are on and they’re up for reelection every two years. Cruz and Nelson only have to face the voters every six years, Stephen.

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