At first glance, planetary scientists who study asteroids might seem to be obvious supporters of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) plans. It would, after all, redirect a small near Earth asteroid (NEA) into lunar orbit, where astronauts would visit it and return perhaps many kilograms of samples. In fact, though, many planetary scientists have expressed skepticism, or even outright opposition, to ARM, worried that the mission might turn into a boondoggle that, if cancelled, could hurt other asteroid projects.
Those arguments were front in center last week at a meeting of the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), a NASA-chartered advisory group, in Washington. The middle day of the three-day meeting, Wednesday, was devoted to discussion about ARM, with NASA officials and other scientists among those speaking. And it featured some of the strongest criticism yet of the ARM by the scientific community.
“I think ARM is a stunt,” said Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary sciences at MIT, in a presentation at the SBAG meeting devoted to criticism of the proposed mission. “A stunt kind of gets handed to you at the top, and there’s nothing underneath to support it.” That’s in contrast, he argued, to the process for selecting science missions, which are supported by rigorous science and compelling questions that only a space mission can answer.
Binzel urged scientists to “just say no” to ARM. “I think that ARM is a one-and-done stunt, and if we get behind this in any way, it’s going to irreparably damage small body exploration.”
While he was opposed to ARM, Binzel was not opposed to human exploration of NEAs. Instead, he advocated human missions to NEAs in “native” (that is, not redirected) orbits. That means building up capabilities in cislunar space while performing surveys to identify NEA targets that would be not much more difficult to reach for later human missions than an asteroid captured into lunar orbit. Such a mission, he said, “is on the true path to Mars.”
Binzel brought up his criticism of ARM at the SBAG meeting because the group may be asked to officially weigh in on the proposed mission. The NASA authorization bill passed by the House in June, HR 4412, includes a provision requiring a “complete assessment” by SBAG “of how the proposed mission is in the strategic interests of the United States in space exploration.” The Senate, which has not been nearly as critical of ARM as the House, has yet to introduce its version of an authorization bill.
Other attendees of the meeting also expressed reservations about ARM and the agency’s overall Asteroid Initiative during presentations by NASA officials earlier in the day. “It just seems like this logical disconnect to me,” said SBAG chair Nancy Chabot of the Applied Physics Lab, trying to reconcile NASA’s stated interest in searching for hazardous NEAs with the relatively limited funding it’s allocating for such searches as part of the initiative. “I guess there’s just a lot of us in the community who are confused by the overall strategy of the agency.”
Some at the meeting worried that a potential cancellation of ARM by a future administration could adversely affect asteroid science in general. “There are groups of people who believe that ARM is associated with the current White House” and could be cancelled by the next, said Tom Statler of the University of Maryland and Ohio University. “If it so happens that ARM gets pushed aside because it was the product of the previous administration, there is a risk that the rest of asteroid science could be collateral damage simply because, in the minds of most people, ARM equals asteroid stuff.”
Others struggled to see the connection between ARM and human exploration of Mars. “What the agency has not articulated is how we’re magically go from cislunar space missions of about a month in duration to anything greater,” said Brent Barbee of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “If this is all you’re going to do in the mid-2020s,” he said of ARM, “then it’s not very credible to talk about humans on Mars in the early to mid 2030s.”
“If we were to start this from a clean sheet and do it in a logical manner, I think every one involved with this would do it differently than how it’s being done right now,” acknowledged NASA’s Lindley Johnson. ARM, he said, did allow NASA to double funding for NASA’s Near Earth Object search program, from $20 to $40 million. “We do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
The SBAG meeting ended without any formal findings or questions about ARM, although Chabot said those are being developed by the group’s steering committee. Some worried that a lack of consensus could result in findings that could make SBAG appear neutral on the issue, which Chabot, as chair of SBAG, acknowledged as the meeting drew to a close on Thursday. “A lot of people do not feel neutral about this,” she said.
The criticism of ARM by SBAG meeting attendees, as well as comments made at a separate meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) held at the same time, as reported by SpacePolicyOnline.com, caught the attention of the chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). “The NASA Advisory Council warns that NASA ‘runs the risk of squandering precious national resources’ if they move forward with ARM,” Smith said in a statement released by the committee on Friday. “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.”