Squyres, Pace, Not Convinced of Asteroid Return Strategy

Squyres, Pace, Not Convinced of Asteroid Return Strategy

NASA’s new asteroid retrieval mission has not won over two influential voices in space policy debates.  Cornell University’s Steve Squyres and George Washington University’s Scott Pace told the National Research Council (NRC) on Monday that it is not necessarily the best next step for the U.S. human spaceflight program.

The NRC’s Committee on Human Spaceflight met Monday and Tuesday in Washington, DC.  The committee is tasked with describing the value proposition of the human spaceflight program – what do taxpayers see as its value for the money spent – and providing advice on future planning for that program.  Among the topics discussed was NASA’s new asteroid retrieval strategy to capture an asteroid, redirect it into a retrograde lunar orbit, and send astronauts to retrieve a sample.

Squyres chairs the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and is perhaps best known as the principal investigator for the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.  He also chaired the NRC’s 2011 Decadal Survey for planetary science.   In addition to talking about NAC’s view of NASA’s human exploration program, he shared his personal views on topics NAC had not yet considered, including the new asteroid retrieval strategy.

His personal recommendation is that NASA not attempt to sell the asteroid retrieval mission either on the basis of exploring asteroids or that it is a more effective way to satisfy President Obama’s goal of using an asteroid mission as a step towards Mars.  Quoting the President’s April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, Squyres reminded the committee that the President’s goal was to build “new spacecraft designed for long journeys … beyond the Moon into deep space,” which is not what the new strategy entails.  He agrees that understanding asteroids is an important scientific goal, but not one that requires humans on-site.   Humans and robots work effectively together in exploring complex environments like Mars where Earth-bound scientists cannot anticipate the many surprises that lie ahead. Comparatively straightforward environments like that of an asteroid can be effectively explored with robotic spacecraft alone, he believes.

Squyres does, however, support the idea of sending astronauts into cis-lunar space for longer periods of time than during the Apollo era, such as the 22-day mission envisioned for the asteroid retrieval mission.   In his view, that is worth doing whether or not an asteroid has been redirected there.  His major concern personally, which he said also has been expressed by NAC, is that “NASA needs a compelling and clearly articulated goal for future human spaceflight that is consistent with its budget.”

Pace strongly supported a robust U.S. human spaceflight program, but not the asteroid mission as a step towards Mars.   He said he is “hard pressed to run into anybody who thinks that going to an asteroid is the right way primarily to go to Mars.”  He believes that the Obama Administration made a decision “not to do anything the prior Administration was doing” in space, and that is how the asteroid idea emerged despite broad bipartisan and international support for returning to the Moon as laid out in President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration.  Pace was a high ranking NASA official in the Bush Administration.

Asked what would happen if the United States abandoned human spaceflight entirely, Pace said it would diminish U.S. influence on the global stage in discussions about space issues such as orbital debris and sustainability.  “We will have made ourselves irrelevant to a lot of discussions,” adding that he sees some of that reduced influence already with the U.S. decision to withdraw from cooperation with Europe in the robotic ExoMars missions.   “Countries are not upset at us. They simply think we’re irrelevant….I can’t think of [anything] that is … more dangerous or serious for a great power than to be considered irrelevant.”

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