House Appropriators Reject Asteroid Redirect Mission, Want Astronauts on Moon – UPDATE

House Appropriators Reject Asteroid Redirect Mission, Want Astronauts on Moon – UPDATE

The House Appropriations Committee is recommending that no funds be provided for planning robotic or crewed missions to asteroids as envisioned by President Obama’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  The committee’s recommendation is in its draft report on the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which will be marked up at full committee level tomorrow (May 24).  Overall, the committee recommends an increase for NASA above its current funding level:  $19.5 billion compared to the $19.3 billion it received for FY2016. [UPDATE: The committee approved the bill on May 24.]

Under the heading “Mission to Mars,” the committee states that while there may be technological benefits to “asteroid redirect and retrieval missions” — an apparent reference to ARM, whose name has varied over the years — they do not “appreciably contribute” to the overall goal of sending humans to Mars. 

In an April 2010 speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, President Obama directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight with the long term goal of sending them to orbit Mars in the 2030s.  The concept evolved over the years and now, instead of sending astronauts to an asteroid, the plan is to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, pluck a boulder from its surface, and move (‘redirect”) the boulder from its native orbit into an orbit around the Moon where it can be visited by astronauts.  They would obtain samples of the asteroid for analysis back on Earth.

This is entirely separate from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid and return a sample to Earth.  That mission is scheduled for launch in September 2016 and its sample will return to Earth in 2023.  (Japan has already retrieved a small sample from an asteroid on its Hayabusa mission.  It launched a second sample-return spacecraft, Hayabusa2, in 2014.  The sample should be returned to Earth in 2020.)

ARM has received little support politically outside the White House or from the scientific community.  House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) frequently criticizes ARM as “unjustified” and a “distraction” from achieving the humans-to-Mars goal.  Scientists argue that robotic spacecraft like OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 can fulfill the need to acquire asteroid samples; astronauts are not needed.

Congress has not prohibited spending money on ARM in the past, but the House Appropriations Committee, for example, has made clear that its interest is primarily the development of high power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which is part of ARM. That type of propulsion is considered necessary for supporting human journeys to Mars and many other purposes.

NASA separates ARM into two portions: the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) and the
Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM).  The “R” has variously
represented “redirect” or “retrieval.”  NASA asserts that the cost of the robotic portion, ARRM, excluding launch costs, is $1.25 billion, although the Government Accountability Office pegged that number at $1.72 billion in a recent report.  No cost estimate has been provided for the crewed portion.  Many are skeptical of the ARRM cost estimate and it has been the subject of intense debate by the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), which advises the NASA Administrator.

NASA also separates the money requested for ARM into two categories:  “direct” and “leveraged.” The direct funding is unique to ARM, while the leveraged funding is money that NASA would spend even if the ARM mission did not exist.  For FY2017, NASA is requesting approximately $217 million for ARM, of which $69 million is direct funding.  The SEP development effort is categorized as leveraged funding.  The direct funding is $67.8 million in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate for mission formulation and about $1 million in the Office of Chief Technologist for related activities. (See Table 4 in’s NASA’s FY2017 Budget Request fact sheet for details.)

The House Appropriations Committee states that “no funds are included in this bill for NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid.”  The language presumably is directed at ARM and not OSIRIS-REx and at the $69 million in direct funding for mission formulation, not the leveraged funding for SEP and other activities, although it is not explicit.

The committee argues that the money would be better spent on deep space habitats, accessing and utilizing space resources, and developing entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies to descend through Mars’ atmosphere and land on its surface.  (The House SS&T Committee held a hearing on deep space habitats last week.)

Importantly, the committee encourages NASA to “develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles.”

Republicans and Democrats in Congress railed against the Obama Administration’s 2010 decision to cancel the George W. Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and then go on to Mars.  In his April 2010 speech, President Obama said there was no need to return to the Moon — “We’ve been there before. … There’s a lot more space to explore.”  

That statement and his cancellation of Constellation have remained sore points between Congress (on a bipartisan basis) and the White House since that time.  Many in the human spaceflight community reject the assertion that returning to the Moon is unnecessary before going to Mars, insisting that systems and humans should be tested closer to home where they could return more quickly in an emergency.  Indeed, high ranking NASA officials agree, but explain that the United States cannot afford the systems needed to return to the lunar surface.  They hope international and commercial partners will provide that capability as part of a cooperative program where NASA would provide transportation to lunar orbit using the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft and others would take it from there.

Eleven of the 12 space agencies that prepared the 2013 Global Exploration Roadmap called for humans to return to the lunar surface; the United States was the only one that did not.   European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner has proposed a “Lunar Village” or “Moon Village” on the far side of the Moon, although ESA as an agency has not endorsed it yet.

The debate over the future of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) — where the International Space Station is located — has consumed human spaceflight advocates since the end of the Apollo era.  While there is widespread (though not universal) agreement that sending humans to Mars is the ultimate goal for the foreseeable future, the steps in between remain as contentious as ever. 

If the committee’s recommendation is upheld through the remainder of the appropriations process, and President Obama signs the bill into law, it would bring to an end this 6-year chapter, leaving it to the incoming President to make a new proposal and future Congresses to debate it. 

Congress typically expresses its policy views through NASA authorization acts, although the most recent law covered funding only through FY2013 (the policy provisions remain intact, however).  The House passed a bipartisan FY2015 NASA authorization act, but the Senate has not considered it.  The House SS&T committee approved a much more controversial FY2016-2017 NASA authorization bill on a party-line vote and no further action has ensued.  Rumors are swirling in Washington that despite the crammed congressional calendar, another attempt may be made at passing a NASA authorization bill before the end of the year, which would inform the new President on congressional priorities.

House Appropriations Committee markup of the CJS appropriations bill is at 10:30 am tomorrow (May 24).  The committee will mark up the FY2017 Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) bill at the same time. It funds the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and has its own language encouraging commercial development of the Moon.  [UPDATE: The committee approved the CJS and T-HUD bills on May 24.]

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