Asteroid Redirect Mission at Critical Juncture

Asteroid Redirect Mission at Critical Juncture

Three weeks after NASA completed a key milestone review of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), the agency still has not officially announced the results.  A NASA official indicated at a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting that the review revealed cost growth, forcing a reexamination of its objectives versus the cost.  An Obama Administration initiative, it is at a critical juncture as the House Appropriations Committee denied funding earlier this year and President Obama’s term in office comes to an end in just 5 months.

NASA conducted its Key Decision Point-B, or KDP-B, review of the robotic portion of the ARM project on July 15.  At a meeting of NAC’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee (NAC/HEO) on July 25, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said the review showed that costs are growing and the agency must evaluate whether to accept the increase or reduce the program’s scope to stay within the cost cap set by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.

NAC sent recommendations to Bolden in July 2014 and January 2015 expressing concern about this exact possibility – that costs would grow and choices would need to be made about the program’s content.  The 2014 recommendation was for NASA to conduct an independent cost and technical assessment of ARM.  The 2015 recommendation was for NASA to preserve two key objectives if the program needed to be descoped: development of high power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) and the ability to maneuver in a low gravity environment in deep space.  It went further in April 2015, issuing a finding (but not a recommendation) that instead of demonstrating SEP technology through the ARM program, it be used to send a spacecraft on a round trip journey to Mars, which it considered a more exciting prospect.

ARM’s Origin, Evolution and Controversy

ARM was initiated by President Obama in 2010 in the wake of his cancellation of the Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and someday go to Mars.  Instead, the President wanted to spend $6 billion over 5 years on the “commercial crew” program, putting the private sector in charge of developing systems to take crews back and forth to the International Space Station with the government providing much of the funding, but private sector companies also putting some of their own capital into the effort.   He also wanted to invest in “game changing” propulsion technologies over 5 years, after which a decision would be made on the next destination for the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Turning crew space transportation over to the private sector was a major paradigm shift for the nation’s human spaceflight program and cancelling Constellation was a blow to those who saw it as the future of that program and a way to keep the space workforce employed as the space shuttle program ended.

Rather than making a major policy pronouncement, the Obama Administration simply included the changes in its FY2011 budget request to Congress on February 1, 2010.   No substitute human spaceflight vision was offered other than extending the International Space Station for 5 more years (to 2020) and servicing it with the proposed commercial crew systems (a similar program for cargo already was underway, initiated by the Bush Administration).

Congress was surprised and backlash from Republicans and Democrats alike was intense, forcing the President into making a speech at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 where he outlined a replacement destination and timetable.  He directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a steppingstone to orbiting Mars in the 2030s and landing there sometime within his lifetime.  He eschewed the idea of returning astronauts to the Moon, saying “We’ve been there before…There’s a lot more of space to explore.”

Dismissing the need for U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon and directing NASA to send them to an asteroid instead was not well received.   The commercial crew concept also was controversial.   By the end of the year, Congress passed – and the President signed – a compromise 2010 NASA Authorization Act under which NASA would build a new big rocket (the Space Launch System) and crew spacecraft (Orion) to enable humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit as Congress wanted, and the President was not prohibited from proceeding with commercial crew and ARM.  Friction has remained between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on the relative priorities for those programs ever since, however.

Sending astronauts to an asteroid requires crew spacecraft that can support human life for many months, though, posing technical and budget challenges.  A 2012 study by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS), associated with the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, suggested that instead of sending astronauts to an asteroid, a robotic spacecraft could be used to move an asteroid into lunar orbit where astronauts could visit it more readily.  The idea was adopted by NASA and modified yet again into its current form where, instead of moving an entire asteroid, a robotic spacecraft will pluck a boulder from an asteroid’s surface and move just the boulder into lunar orbit.


NASA describes ARM as consisting of two portions:  the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) – sending the robotic probe to the asteroid, plucking the boulder from its surface, and moving the boulder to lunar orbit; and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) – sending astronauts to study it there and return samples to Earth.

Bolden has insisted since the beginning that ARRM will cost no more than $1.25 billion excluding launch and operations.  No cost estimate has been made public for ARCM.

Because ARRM is a robotic asteroid mission, it can be easily confused with a completely unrelated mission scheduled for launch next month, OSIRIS-REx. That robotic spacecraft also will go to an asteroid, grab a sample, and return it to Earth.  OSIRIS-REx is a science mission designed to advance scientific understanding of asteroids.

ARM advocates point out that the amount of asteroid material that can be returned using OSIRIS-REx is small compared to what the astronauts will be able to collect from the boulder.  Critics argue that asteroid sample return missions can be accomplished by robotic spacecraft alone and do not require astronauts.

ARM Funding

There is no specific line item in NASA’s budget for ARM.  Instead funding is spread across the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), and the Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT).

NASA has been careful to differentiate between “direct” work that is unique to ARM and “leveraged” work the agency would pursue even if ARM did not exist.  STMD’s development of high power SEP is considered enabling to many missions in Earth orbit and beyond, not just ARM, for example sending cargo to Mars as part of human expeditions there. SMD’s efforts to locate and track asteroids similarly were underway before ARM.  In NASA parlance, ARM is leveraging the investments in SEP and asteroid tracking and they would continue even if ARM did not.

Table 4 in’s fact sheet on NASA’s FY2017 budget request shows the funding requested for ARM since FY2014 based on data from NASA.   It does not, however, show how much NASA actually spent in any of those years.  As discussed below, finding money within the agency’s budget for ARM has been a challenge and resulted in a one-year delay already.

For FY2017, the requested funding for ARM is $217 million, of which direct funding associated uniquely with ARM is $67.8 million in HEOMD and approximately $1 million in OCT. 

ARM has earned little support over the years outside of NASA and the White House and Congress has been particularly skeptical.  It has not denied funding yet, but the House Appropriations Committee proposed that step earlier this year in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill.   It provided no funding for “NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid,” language that apparently is aimed at the $67.8 million in HEOMD and perhaps the $1 million in OCT.

The bill has not been voted on by the House and there is no similar provision in the Senate version (which reached the Senate floor in June, but was derailed by the gun control debate), so it is not yet law, but is an expression of non-support by a key congressional committee.

ARM, the Science Community, and NAC

ARM is part of NASA’s human spaceflight program to demonstrate technologies, especially high power SEP, and other capabilities needed to send people to Mars.  It has other objectives, such as demonstrating the ability to alter the course of an asteroid headed towards Earth – referred to as planetary defense – but the science community makes clear that it is not a science mission.

Asteroids, comets and other small celestial objects not orbiting planets are categorized as “small bodies.”  Scientists who study small bodies in the solar system gather as part of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) to debate issues and express their views. They were not consulted prior to the decision to create ARM and have been among its strongest critics arguing that if the goal is to understand asteroids, there are better methods to do so.

SBAG provides input to NAC through NAC’s Science Committee.   NASA officials including Michele Gates, ARM program director, and Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (which includes the Near Earth Object Observations program) in the Science Mission Directorate, subsequently have worked assiduously with SBAG to solicit their input and win their acquiescence.

SBAG finally approved a finding at its June 2016 meeting expressing approval of two aspects of ARM – a plan to create opportunities for hosted payloads on the robotic spacecraft that will focus on science objectives and a competitively selected science investigation team. The text of its finding, as posted on the SBAG website, is as follows:

“Asteroid Redirect Mission
SBAG supports and appreciates the continued engagement of the small bodies community by the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), through mechanisms such as the recent Formulation Assessment and Support Team (FAST). SBAG supports the plan as presented by the ARM team to create opportunities for hosted payloads on the ARM spacecraft and to have a competitively selected Investigation Team, both of which would maximize the science return of the mission.”

Debate over ARM was intense at meetings of the full NAC resulting in the 2014 and 2015 recommendations and April 2015 finding described earlier.  The recommendations are posted on NAC’s website.  The July 2014 recommendation states:

Recommendation: The Council recommends that NASA should conduct an independent cost and technical assessment of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). NASA should state clearly in advance what the cost and technical criteria are for implementing the mission. These criteria should include affordability within currently projected budgets. The independent assessment should be performed before the downselect between Options A and B. The possible outcomes of this process are: fly Option A, fly Option B, or (if the projected cost is unacceptable) fly neither.”

The January 2015 recommendation reads as follows:

“The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) has two objectives that are particularly important contributors to Humans to Mars (H2M): Large scale solar electric propulsion (SEP) and maneuvering in a low gravity environment in deep space. As work on ARM goes forward and · costing is completed, focus on a mission architecture that will preserve these two key H2M objectives if the redirection of an asteroid must be descoped.”

NAC provides advice to, and its members are appointed by, the NASA Administrator.  Under the NAC terms of reference, the Administrator responds to recommendations, but not findings.  The responses also are posted on the NAC website.  His response to the 2014 recommendation was that an independent cost and technical review would be conducted, but only after the decision between Options A and B was made.   The response to the 2015 recommendation was that NASA had no plans to descope the mission at that time.  The text of the April 2015 finding was published in a article.

Cornell space scientist Steve Squyres chaired NAC during the most energetic debates over ARM, but he stepped down in April 2016.  Two other members with strong views on the subject, Tom Young and Scott Hubbard, also no longer are on NAC.  Former astronaut Ken Bowersox now is the interim chair.  Bowersox had been chairing the NAC/HEO committee, currently led by Wayne Hale.  During the July 2016 NAC meeting, Hale suggested that the prior NAC recommendations on ARM be reconsidered to reflect changes in the past year, such as SBAG’s expression of support for some aspects of the program.

KDP-B Review

It was against this backdrop – a spark of support from SBAG and a changing of the guard at NAC, but opposition from a key congressional committee and the imminent end of the Obama Administration – that NASA conducted its KDP-B review.

KDPs are part of NASA’s project management tools to make decisions on whether to proceed with or change programs at various points along their developmental paths.  To move into Phase B (preliminary design and technology completion), a program must successfully pass the KDP-B review.

HEOMD Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier told NAC/HEO on July 25 that ARM’s cost has grown, in part because of a one-year delay announced earlier this year.   “We had trouble getting the money together for this thing,” he said, and the slip was due to internal budget decisions, not technical problems.  ARM is “competing with all the other” development programs in the HEOMD portfolio, which include the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew spacecraft, commercial crew, and a habitation module for sending humans to Mars.

The “intent is to live within the effective cap,” but the “effective” cap may be larger than $1.25 billion if it is adjusted for inflation and the one-year delay.  The question, he said, is “can we legitimately stay within the cap and remove content such that we stay within the cost cap, or are we better off asking for an exception.”  He projected that when a formal memo about the KDP-B results is released – which he anticipated in early August — it would show a range of budgets, adding that is not unusual for a KDP-B review.

Gerstenmaier strongly defended ARM as a critical element of the Journey to Mars not only at the NAC meetings, but at a July hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.  At the hearing, he also pleaded that Congress not be overly prescriptive in telling NASA how to accomplish its missions, but to allow the technical experts to make those decisions.

The Months Ahead

Congress may not complete action on the FY2017 funding bills for some months, so whether the House Appropriations Committee’s recommendation stands or is altered in conference may not be known for some time.  Senators at the hearing indicated a strong desire to pass a new NASA authorization bill this year.  Time is getting short, but that could be another avenue for Congress to express its views on ARM.

In the meantime, NASA – like other government agencies — is preparing to brief the transition teams for the Clinton and Trump campaigns.  The future of the human spaceflight program surely will be a key issue.

Thus the results of the KDP-B review are of special import.   NASA did not respond to’s most recent request today (August 8) asking when the results would be made public.

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