NASA Delays Decision on Asteroid Redirect Mission Options

NASA Delays Decision on Asteroid Redirect Mission Options

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot revealed during a media teleconference this afternoon that he is delaying a decision between two options for implementing the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   The decision was expected today, but now will wait until sometime in January.

NASA has been working on the ARM concept since the White House announced it in 2013 as part of the FY2014 budget request.  The idea is that NASA will send a robotic spacecraft to a small asteroid and redirect it from its native orbit into an orbit around the Moon where astronauts can visit it.  The White House decided that such a mission would satisfy President Obama’s 2010 directive that NASA send astronauts to an asteroid as the next U.S. human spaceflight destination.

A variant of that concept emerged where instead of moving all of a small asteroid, the robotic spacecraft would pluck a boulder from a larger asteroid and move the boulder to lunar orbit.   The original idea is called Option A and the variant is Option B.  NASA has had teams working on identifying the technical challenges associated with the two options with the goal of choosing between them prior to a Mission Concept Review (MCR) that is scheduled for late February 2015They want the MCR to focus on a single option.

Lightfoot was briefed by the teams yesterday and a decision was expected today on which of the two would proceed to the MCR.  He said, however, that he needs clarification of some of the issues and two or three more weeks to decide.

Option B would cost about $100 million more than Option A, he said, and the question is what the agency would get for that extra money.  The utility of the technologies needed for ARM to meet future goals like sending people to Mars is called “extensibility.”   Option B is more technically challenging, Lightfoot said, but “it also demonstrates more of the technologies, so the extensibility piece is there. We’re going to have to test these [technologies] eventually. …. It’s an interesting trade for us to make.”

Lightfoot reiterated that NASA believes it can accomplish the ARM mission for about $1.25 billion.  That figure does not include the cost of launching the robotic spacecraft.  NASA is choosing between the Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy and Space Launch System (SLS) for that launch.  The cost also does not include the human component – launching a crew aboard an Orion spacecraft on an SLS.

NASA’s current plan is to launch the crew portion of the mission in 2024, but Lightfoot said that date could change in the MCR.  An independent cost estimate also is expected to be presented then.

The announcement that no decision was being made today came as a surprise.  NASA issued a press release about 10:00 am EST this morning that the media telecom would be held at 4:00 pm, with Lightfoot, ARM program director Michele Gates, and Near Earth Object (NEO) Observations program executive Lindley Johnson.  Only Lightfoot was present, however, and it was just to announce the delay.

NASA requested $160 million for ARM in FY2015 spread through three of its four Mission Directorates – Science Mission Directorate (SMD), Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).  It is not a specific line item in the budget.   Congress approved a substantial budget increase for NASA overall, but was not specific about ARM.  Lightfoot said today that NASA received “all we need” for ARM this year.

The FY2015 funding request included $93 million for technology development and Lightfoot said there is enough commonality between the two options that the money can be used efficiently no matter which option is ultimately selected.

ARM has garnered little enthusiasm outside of the White House and NASA, but Congress has not prohibited the agency from proceeding.  The House Appropriations Committee said in its report on the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill (H. Rept. 113-448) that it had concerns about “ARM’s costs and feasibility as well as its strategic relevance and potential to generate external support from the public and international collaborators.”  It directed that NASA “may only expend funds on those portions of the ARM mission that are also applicable to other current NASA programs, clearly extensible to other potential future exploration missions …. or have broad applicability to other future non-exploration activities, such as in-space robotic servicing.”  The report on the final appropriations bill (the “cromnibus”) is silent about ARM, but the language from the House report stands.  It is not clear how much, if any, of the work NASA is currently doing on ARM would be considered inapplicable to other current or potential NASA missions. 

Lightfoot also was expected to announce today which Mission Directorate will take responsibility for executing the mission.  He is the highest ranking civil servant at NASA and nominally third in the chain of command behind the Administrator and Deputy Administrator, but the latter position has been vacant since last year so in reality he is second. He has been personally overseeing the mission as a whole since it was announced, but ordinarily it would be assigned to a Mission Directorate.

SMD made clear from the beginning that it is not a science mission, but its activities to discover and track asteroids are an important component of the mission.  STMD is in charge of developing the needed technologies, notably high power solar electric propulsion (SEP), and most of the ARM money in NASA’s FY2015 budget goes to STMD.  HEOMD clearly is involved since ARM requires astronauts to visit the asteroid and ARM is supposed to be part of the overall goal of sending people to Mars.  Gates, the ARM program director, served in HEOMD before taking on this assignment, which is described as a “cross-Directorate, cross-Center” effort.

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