Nearly a year ago, NASA announced its plans to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts, a concept originally called the Asteroid Retrieval Mission and now known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). In the months that followed, the proposed mission received a chilly reception on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House. A NASA authorization bill approved by the House Science Committee last summer would have forbid NASA from spending any funds on the ARM and required it to submit budget, technical and other details about the mission.
This past week, NASA held an “Asteroid Initiative Opportunities Forum” to discuss the agency’s overall asteroid initiative, the current status of ARM planning, and details about a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) it released earlier this month seeking proposals in five key technical areas associated with the ARM. That work is supporting a Mission Concept Review planned for early 2015 that will make key decisions about the mission architecture. NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot said at the forum that he was confident that this review would create a mission with a cost about half, or even less, than the $2.6-billion estimated cost of a similar asteroid redirect mission in the final report of a study two years ago by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech.
However, those details aren’t enough to satisfy some members of Congress, who remain skeptical of the overall ARM concept. “The White House’s proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission is a mission without a budget, without a destination, and without a launch date,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, in his opening statement Wednesday in a hearing on the administration’s overall budget proposal for science agencies. Smith said he preferred a “certain, near-term, realizable goal” for human spaceflight, in particular the Mars 2021 mission flyby concept proposed by Inspiration Mars.
Later, in the question-and-answer session with Office of Science and Technology Policy direct John Holdren, Smith brought up again NASA’s asteroid plans, citing the late 2012 report by the National Academies that concluded there was little support for NASA’s plans for sending humans to a near Earth asteroid by 2025 (a report completed before NASA announced the ARM concept), as well as criticism of the ARM itself by the NASA Advisory Council last year. “The asteroid mission has been reformulated and better explained” since the National Academies report, Holdren argued, “and now has strong buy-in.”
Smith cut Holdren off. “They still don’t have a budget, they still don’t have an asteroid, and they still don’t have a launch date. That doesn’t sound to me like a very serious program.”
At the hearing the next day about the NASA budget, Smith again brought up the ARM, raising doubts about its relevance to long-term space exploration and asking if NASA was formally studying the Mars 2021 flyby mission concept. Bolden said NASA was reviewing the Inspiration Mars mission concept report, but not doing anything more formal.
Smith also mentioned comments made at a hearing last May by the committee’s space subcommittee, where NASA Advisory Council chairman Steve Squyres questioned the relevance of the ARM towards supporting NASA’s long-term Mars exploration plans. “I think if you talked to Steve Squyres today, because of where we are, the maturity—” Bolden started to respond.
“I don’t doubt you could put political pressure on him,” Smith interjected, something that Bolden denied. “As far as I’m concerned, his testimony before the committee stands,” Smith concluded.
Earlier this month, it appeared that one previous congressional critic of the ARM had undergone a change of heart. Speaking at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable on March 18, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, said that after hearing Bolden give a “riveting” description of the ARM concept to students, she texted him, saying she was “mesmerized” by that description was now a supporter of it, Space News reported.
However, at Thursday’s hearing on NASA’s budget, she walked back some of those comments. “While I paid the NASA administrator a compliment for his passionate and lucid explanation of the Asteroid Redirect Mission to a group of students recently,” she said in her opening remarks, “I continue to have questions about this potential mission and how it would contribute relative to other potential missions to enable the goal of sending humans to the surface of Mars.”