Gates: ARRM Cost Grows 10 Percent Due to One-Year Schedule Slip

Gates: ARRM Cost Grows 10 Percent Due to One-Year Schedule Slip

Michele Gates, NASA’s Program Director for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), said today that the cost for the robotic portion of the mission has grown from $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion primarily due to a one-year delay announced earlier this year.  The cost growth was announced yesterday, a month after the program passed a milestone called Key Decision Point-B (KDP-B).

ARM was initiated by the Obama Administration as the next step in NASA’s human spaceflight program, a steppingstone to eventually sending humans to Mars.  ARM is composed of two elements:  the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid to pluck a boulder from its surface and move it to lunar orbit; and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) to send astronauts to visit the boulder, collect samples and return them to Earth.

The KDP-B review was of the ARRM portion and was completed on July 15.  NASA announced the top-level results yesterday.  Gates spoke with about the program today.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has insisted that ARRM would cost no more than $1.25 billion, an issue of concern to NASA Advisory Council (NAC) members worried that money spent on ARM might reduce funds available for other aspects of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” or other NASA priorities.

Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), told NAC in July that the KDP-B review had revealed cost growth and the agency was deciding whether to descope the mission to stay within the cap or accept the cost growth.

Gates said today that no descope options were exercised.  Instead, the decision was to proceed with ARRM and “move” the cost cap to $1.4 billion.  She said one cost estimate by the JPL-led project and two independent probabilistic assessments by its Standing Review Board (chaired by Janet Petro, Deputy Director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center) and a separate team factored into the decision.  She also explained that at this stage of a program, there is less emphasis on precision than will be expected at the next milestone, KDP-C, while adding that the $1.4 billion has a 70 percent confidence level.

The decision to delay the mission by one year was made in February.  Gerstenmaier said in July it was because of difficulty in finding money within NASA to fund the project.

Launch of ARRM was originally expected in 2020, with ARCM in 2025 to meet President Obama’s directive that NASA send astronauts to an asteroid by that date.  ARRM now will be launched in December 2021 in order to meet up with asteroid 2008 EV5, with ARCM taking place in 2026. 

A final decision on what asteroid will be the target for ARRM will not be made until a year before launch, but EV5 is being used as a reference point and remains accessible if the mission is launched in December 2021 instead of 2020, Gates said.

NASA’s cost estimate for ARRM excludes launch and operations.   In a March 2016 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of NASA’s major programs showed a cost of $1.72 billion.  Gates explained that the $1.72 billion includes the launch vehicle cost, set at approximately $500 million as a placeholder since NASA has not determined which of three launch vehicles will be used (Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy, or the Space Launch System).

ARRM is managed by JPL, which awarded study contracts to four companies for concepts for the spacecraft earlier this year.  Those contracts are completed and a Request for Proposals (RFP) has not yet been issued for the spacecraft itself.   Gates therefore demurred on questions about how much of the $1.4 billion is for the spacecraft, whether it will be a fixed price or cost-plus contract, and when the RFP will be released.

The four companies that won the concept contracts and are eligible to respond to the RFP when it is issued are Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Orbital ATK, and SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral, now a subsidiary of Canada’s MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates — MDA).

ARRM requires a spacecraft that uses high power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) and accommodates a capture mechanism to grab the boulder.  NASA is developing both of those technologies.

Meanwhile, NASA will release a Broad Agency Announcement in September for partner-provided payloads that could be carried on ARRM and for membership in a multidisciplinary industry-academia-government-international investigation team to provide technical expertise to ARRM and ARCM.

It can be difficult to follow this acronym-rich project.  ARRM and ARCM are the two components of ARM, which in turn is part of NASA’s “Asteroid Initiative.”  The $1.4 billion estimate is only for ARRM and, as noted, excludes launch and operations.  

None of those should be confused with the robotic OSIRIS-REx mission scheduled for launch on September 8, 2016.  That is a science mission that will use only a robotic spacecraft to return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth.  It is unrelated to ARRM/ARCM/ARM/Asteroid Initiative (all of which are associated with NASA’s human spaceflight program).

Gerstenmaier characterized ARM as an “excellent” way to demonstrate the skills needed for NASA’s Journey to Mars at a recent Senate hearing.  In today’s interview, Gates called it “important and enabling.”

The next administration will have to decide if the costs are worth the benefits.  Although NASA has decided they are, the House Appropriations Committee disagrees.  It denied funding for the program in its report on the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which funds NASA.   The bill has not passed the House yet, however, and there is no similar language in the Senate version, so NASA is not currently prohibited from spending money on the project.

For NASA, the next milestone decision is KDP-C where the agency formally commits to a cost and schedule for a program.  Gates said that is currently scheduled for March 2018.

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