White House and NASA Defend Asteroid Redirect Mission, Senate Skeptical in New Bill

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Publication date: 
16 September 2016
Number: 
113

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and NASA held an event this week to explain the rationale for the administration’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission. Congress has been skeptical about the mission's value, and this skepticism was further confirmed in a new Senate NASA reauthorization bill released yesterday.

On Sept. 14, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and NASA held an event to explain the purpose and value of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), the administration’s proposal to capture a boulder from an asteroid and bring it into orbit around the Moon for study. Speaking at the event were OSTP Director John Holdren, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and ARM Program Director Michele Gates.

In his remarks, Holdren first outlined four components of the administration’s vision for human space exploration: working with the private sector to develop cost-effective means of expanding human presence in space, developing new technologies for space exploration, extending use of the International Space Station into the mid-2020s so that it can serve as a test-bed for these new technologies, and executing a series of increasingly ambitious missions to take humans beyond low Earth orbit. Holdren then explained that the ARM is a key part of this vision as it provides a destination for humans to conduct operations near the Moon and demonstrates advanced electric propulsion capabilities key to the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars.

Holdren also stated that ARM serves as an important demonstration of asteroid deflection techniques that could one day help prevent an asteroid from striking the Earth. He noted that the meteor that exploded above Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 had the power of 400-500 kilotons of TNT (about 30 times the power of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima), and that a 1908 meteor impact, dubbed the “Tunguska event,” was equivalent to a multiple megaton explosion.

Given that the Chelyabinsk impact is estimated to be a 1 in 100 year event and the Tunguska impact is estimated to be a 1 in 1,000 year event, Holdren asserted that asteroid deflection is a capability worth developing. “We have to be smarter than the dinosaurs,” Holdren said, a reference to the theory that a large meteor strike near the Yucatán peninsula led to the extinction of dinosaurs.

ARM Asteroid Deflection

Holdren then summarized the ARM’s rationale by pointing to five distinct benefits of the mission:

The Asteroid Retrieval Mission makes sense in about five ways: it makes sense for science, for better understanding of the composition of asteroids and what they can tell us about the origins of the solar system. It makes sense from the standpoint of technology demonstration, demonstrating technologies we’re going to need for the mission to Mars. It makes sense in terms of human operations in cis-lunar space, again the most appropriate stepping-off point for Mars. And it makes sense for the possibilities for using asteroids for sources of materials, potentially sources of fuel, sources of water, to resupply space missions, and ultimately, to meet needs on Earth. So this is a multi-purpose mission, but the planetary defense aspect is one important part of it.

Holdren concluded his remarks by pointing to President Obama’s support of the mission: “The president is excited about this mission as well. He spoke about an asteroid mission in 2010 when he talked about the way we were building a systematic, coherent, visionary approach to moving deeper into space and conducting ever more elaborate operations in space.”

Senate skeptical in new NASA authorization bill

Yesterday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee announced that it will mark up six bills next week including the “NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016.” This is the Senate’s first move toward reauthorizing policies and programs at NASA in the current Congress. The House passed a NASA reauthorization bill in February 2015 that the Senate has not considered.

Section 435 of the Senate’s new authorization bill is specific to the ARM. It begins by noting that the projected cost of the mission has grown from $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion and that the estimated launch date has slipped from December 2020 to December 2021. It then points out that the NASA Advisory Council concluded that “maneuvering a large test mass is not necessary to provide a valid in-space test of a new solar electric propulsion stage” and that “other possible motivations for acquiring and maneuvering a boulder, such as asteroid science and planetary defense, do not have value commensurate with their probable cost.”

The bill then expresses the Senate’s overall skepticism about the mission:

It is the sense of Congress that the technological and scientific goals of the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission may not be commensurate with the cost; and alternative missions may provide a more cost effective and scientifically beneficial means to demonstration the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars…

The bill would require NASA to submit a report to Congress within 180 days of the bill’s enactment which (1) evaluates options other than the ARM for demonstrating technologies needed for a human mission to Mars; (2) assesses the scientific, technical, and commercial benefits of these alternate approaches; and (3) compares the costs of these alternatives.

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