Smith, Babin Question NASA Assertion that Scientists Now Support ARM

Smith, Babin Question NASA Assertion that Scientists Now Support ARM

The chairmen of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and its Space Subcommittee want NASA to provide documentation to underpin recent agency statements implying that its scientific advisors now support the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  The controversial Obama Administration project has received little support, including from the scientists who study asteroids. A November NASA update to an ARM website suggests they have changed their minds, however.

In 2010, President Obama canceled the Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return humans to the surface of the Moon and someday send them to Mars.  He stated that we had already been to the Moon’s surface and there was no need to go back.  Instead, he directed NASA to focus on sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a step towards putting humans in orbit around Mars in the 2030s.  Over time, that evolved into ARM, where a robotic spacecraft will be sent to an asteroid, pluck a boulder from its
surface, and move the boulder to lunar orbit.  Once there, astronauts will visit it and collect a sample for return to Earth.

ARM has two components:  the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) — the robotic spacecraft that will collect and relocate the boulder, and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) — sending astronauts to obtain a sample.  NASA initially estimated the cost of ARRM at $1.25 billion.  No cost estimate has been provided for ARCM.  NASA argues that ARRM and ARCM will demonstrate technologies needed to achieve the long term goal of sending humans to Mars such as high power solar electric propulsion (SEP) and cites other potential benefits such as ARRM demonstrating a “gravity tractor” technique to change an asteroid’s trajectory.

Scientists who study asteroids and other small bodies in the solar system provide input to NASA through the agency’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG).  They were not consulted prior to announcement of the mission by the White House.  Later, NASA officials responsible for executing ARM engaged with SBAG to explain the mission and obtain input on how best to design it to further scientific goals as well as meet human spaceflight objectives.

On November 16, NASA posted an update to one of its ARM websites announcing release of a report from an SBAG Special Action Team (SAT) that NASA said “confirms scientific benefits” of the mission. (The posting looks like a press release, but was not formally issued as a NASA news release.)   The posting said the SAT compared ARM requirements to internationally developed Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) for human missions into deep space and science objectives identified in the National Academies’ most recent Decadal Survey for planetary science. The SAT concluded that ARM could close 18 small body SKGs and address 15 questions that support specific objectives in the Decadal Survey, although some of that is “contingent upon additional instruments or payloads on the robotic segment of ARM or additional crew time than is currently baselined for the crew segment of ARM.”  The posting indisputably conveys the impression that SBAG, or at least the members of the SAT are warming up to ARM after years of skepticism.

Today, House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) called on NASA to provide the committee with documents to help it “better understand the genesis and intent” of the SAT report and the “press release.”

In a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Smith and Babin requested all documents associated with the SAT report and the press release that underpin the implication that the agency’s scientific advisors now support ARM.

“Contrary to the assertions made in the press release, numerous advisory bodies have questioned the merits of the President’s ARM mission.  The NASA Advisory Council, the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), and the National Research Council have all raised concerns with the mission,” Smith and Babin said.  They argue that as the Trump Administration takes office “it would benefit from clear guidance from both NASA and its advisory bodies.”  The 6-page letter (plus an attachment) details comments from those advisory groups since 2013 expressing reservations about the mission.

ARM passed its Key Decision Point B (KDP-B) review this summer, allowing it to enter the preliminary design and technology completion phase.  ARM Program Director Michele Gates revealed at the time that the cost for ARRM had grown from $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion, excluding launch and operations costs.  She said NASA uses $500 million as a placeholder for the launch cost, which would raise the total to $1.9 billion without operations.  That is the estimate only at this point in the program.  NASA does not confirm a mission’s schedule or cost until it passes the next milestone, KDP-C.

One concern is that the costs for ARRM and ARCM will grow to such an extent that they will interfere with other science or human exploration missions.  While there is strong support for the development of high power solar electric propulsion, which has many applications, critics argue that it can be developed even if ARM is terminated.  Many scientists contend that if the goal is to understand asteroids, collecting samples for return to Earth does not require astronauts as demonstrated by Japanese and NASA robotic missions that are already doing that.  Human spaceflight advocates worry that the roughly $2 billion for ARRM could be better spent on other aspects of advancing NASA’s Journey to Mars, such as building habitats.

For those and other reasons, ARM has garnered little support either in Congress or the space community.

Still, Congress has not prohibited NASA from spending money on it, at least as of now. The House Appropriations Committee’s FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which includes NASA, would prohibit NASA from spending any money for planning robotic or crewed missions to asteroids, but the bill has not passed the House yet.  Its Senate counterpart is silent with regard to ARM.  A draft version of a FY2017 NASA authorization bill also does not require that ARM be terminated.  Instead, NASA would have to submit an analysis of alternatives on how to demonstrate technologies needed for human missions to Mars.


User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.