Spaceflight Insider

OPINION: Asteroid Redirect Mission–Option “B” as in Boondoggle

NASA Asteroid Redirect Mission Option B spacecraft carrying asteroid NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Option B under NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission - would see a boulder picked off an asteroid ferried into lunar orbit. Image Credit: NASA

With NASA’s selection of “Option B” for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), a robotic probe will retrieve a boulder from an asteroid instead of towing an entire asteroid to lunar orbit. What started out as an already uninspiring, wasteful mission has become even more uninspiring and wasteful. The ARM has been compared to digging a pond in front of the Atlantic Ocean; Option B is more like going to a swimming pool, filling a bucket with water, and bringing said bucket to the beach.

The basic question is: what is the purpose of the ARM? Basically, the goals are: (1) to retrieve asteroid samples to determine the feasibility of asteroid mining, (2) to test methods of diverting an asteroid on collision course with Earth, (3) practicing rendezvous and ExtraVehicular Activity techniques which will be used on a mission to Mars, and (4) to test new space technologies – such as Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP). On the outside, those seem like viable goals, but a closer look reveals ARM to be a colossal waste of money and resources that will not take us further into space, but instead could be a massive setback which will likely not inspire the public who has been asked to foot the bill.

Artist's depiction of an astronaut preparing to retrieve a sample from the boulder. What NASA does best: providing glossy paintings of space missions that may or may not happen sometime in the future. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s depiction of an astronaut preparing to retrieve a sample from the boulder. What NASA does best: providing glossy paintings of space missions that may or may not happen sometime in the future. Image Credit: NASA

The ARM would be laudable if NASA had the funding and specific long-term goals to make it worth the money and expenditure of resources. It does not. NASA continues to hobble along with a cripplingly-small budget that varies unpredictably from year to year, a bloated bureaucracy, undefined goals, a demoralized workforce, lack of leadership from either the Administrator or the President, and no real direction.

This was not true just ten years ago. It has been known since 2003 that the Shuttle Program was going to end in 2010, and that the Shuttle was to be replaced by the Constellation Program – a plan to return U.S. astronauts to the Moon and establish a base there, and to then send crewed missions to Mars. In 2010, the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee, chaired by Norman Augustine, concluded that the Constellation Program could not achieve its goals without a massive budget infusion, and recommended three options for the future of human space flight: (1) Mars First, (2) Moon First, and (3) Flexible Path. President Barack Obama chose none of those options in their entirety, canceling the Constellation Program in favor of developing a spacecraft and a rocket to be decided later; to go to destinations also to be decided later.

Since that time, NASA’s manned space program has been unfocused at best – chaotic at worst. Four years after the last Shuttle flight, the United States is incapable of putting its own astronauts into space, and will remain so for at least two more years.

President Barack Obama NASA Kennedy Space Center photo credit Jason Rhian SpaceFlight Insider

President Obama’s speech at Kennedy Space Center in April 2010 clarified only one specific goal: we are not returning to the Moon. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

On April 15, 2010, at a speech at Kennedy Space Center, President Obama attempted to explain his plan for the space agency; this included a crewed mission to an asteroid and an eventual journey of Mars. The most significant policy statement, which is the only possible real reason for the ARM, is: “I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before.”

President Obama’s tacit rejection of the Moon as a destination has crippled crewed space efforts. The “we’ve been there before” argument – is a pretty shoddy reason not to return to the Moon. The simple fact is we haven’t been to the Moon since 1972. The hardware we used to get there is obsolete. The people who got us there have all retired or passed away. Simply put, the expertise that put human footsteps on the Moon no longer exists. And now we’re talking about going all the way to Mars?

In order to go to the Red Planet, NASA will need environmental and navigational systems that will work flawlessly for at least a year, perhaps two or more; a landing craft – that has not yet been designed – which will land in an environment where we have no experience in landing a crewed spacecraft; exercise equipment to keep the crew fit and prepared to work in a gravity field after months in space; radiation shielding to protect against higher levels of solar radiation than any crewed spacecraft has experienced before; tools and expertise to deal with a wide range of unforeseen medical emergencies, and on and on. Can it be done? Of course, but is the money there?

Orion, on display after arriving at Kennedy Space Center after an 8 day drive from San Diego. Photo Credit Michael Seeley / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s new crew-rated spacecraft is capable of supporting a crew of four for about 21 days. Photo Credit: Michael Seeley / SpaceFlight Insider

Exactly how is the ARM adequate preparation for such an undertaking? Quite simply – it isn’t.

Picking a boulder off of an asteroid so that an inexpensive capsule can rendezvous with it and collect samples has nothing to do with going to Mars. Instead, it is a busy-work mission, a pointless exercise which has not and will not engage the American people. Even worst – it is eating up NASA’s limited crewed space budget. ARM will likely leave NASA less capable of mounting a mission to Mars.

The most logical – indeed the only – way to prepare for a Mars mission without a drastic increase in NASA’s budget is to return to the Moon, to once again become proficient in deep space flight, to practice landing on an alien world, and to spend years developing the space infrastructure needed to support such a massive undertaking as a mission to Mars.

Instead, the President and Congress are taking timid half-measures, promising big missions and delivering funding barely adequate for NASA to survive. Why would this be, unless it’s simply that the United States does not take space exploration seriously? Considering the sheer difficulty and obstacles in getting a crew to Mars and back again, it’s almost laughable that President Obama has suggested a Mars mission without first focusing on intensive lunar development. It’s laughable that anyone serious about space exploration would think that the Asteroid Redirect Mission in any way prepares NASA for a mission to Mars.

Consider how we got to the Moon in the 1960s. It began with a bold mission statement by then-President John F. Kennedy, which outlined a specific mission and a timeline: by the end of the decade, land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth. Certainly a stark contrast to President Obama’s vague “go somewhere someday” plan. Kennedy also requested the money to pay for the ambitious lunar program. (In today’s austere financial climate, it would be impossible to allocate such funds for any space effort, but NASA has accomplished great things on its meager budget since the 1970s. However, to be chronically underfunded while politicians promise missions to Mars is lunacy.)

In order to reach the Moon in the 1960s, NASA conducted a series of missions to perfect the techniques necessary to land on the Moon--unlike the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which has nothing to do with landing on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

In order to reach the Moon in the 1960s, NASA conducted a series of missions to perfect the techniques necessary to land on the Moon – unlike the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which has nothing to do with landing on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

During the “Space Race”, NASA embarked on a series of missions that incrementally paved the way to the Moon. The flights under Project Mercury increased our understanding of human capabilities in space. The subsequent Gemini missions perfected rendezvous and docking, extravehicular activity, high-orbit flight, measurement of the Van Allen radiation belts, long-duration space flight, guidance and navigation, and so on. Then came a series of Apollo missions that brought us closer and closer to the lunar landing. First the unmanned flights of the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM), next the Lunar Module (LM), then crewed orbital flight of the Apollo CSM, then the audacious flight of Apollo 8 all the way around the Moon, the manned test of the LM on Apollo 9, the run-through of the first Moon landing on Apollo 10, and then, finally, the historic event itself of July 20, 1969.

There is no such development of a Mars mission architecture in place. The ARM is no more than an expensive promissory note – one which has shrunk in scope from the absurd to the irrelevant.

Now, instead of towing an asteroid to lunar orbit, a probe will simply pick up a boulder and bring it to lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts at some still undefined time. In addition to being a dull mission which fails to interest the public, its scientific merit is questionable at best. A boulder lying on an asteroid will very likely not even be a component of that asteroid.

While NASA is working to carry out this “mission to nowhere” – spending precious resources on a pointless effort – the agency is still years away from being able to launch our own astronauts into space with NASA’s budget wavering unpredictably as the political winds blow.

These are not the signs of a serious national investment in space exploration. MIT planetary sciences professor Richard Binzel was quite succinct at a symposium in March of 2015: “What does ARM, or what does picking a boulder up from the surface of an asteroid, have to do with placing an astronaut on the surface of Mars? If you’re dumbfounded, you’re not the only one.”

Binzel certainly is not alone in his assessment. In January, Steven Squyres, chairman of the NASA Advisory Council and the Principal Investigator on NASA’s highly successful Mars Exploration Rovers mission, said: “If you’re going to spend $1.25 billion-plus launch vehicle costs to do something, and you get the most important things by not going after the rock, don’t go after the rock.”

Why are we going after the rock? Why is an entire space launch system being designed to grab a boulder, drag it to lunar orbit, and scrape some samples off of it?

To this observer, it seems the only reason for ARM is because President Obama has placed the Moon off limits. The President has not outlined a space mandate in any specific detail, there’s no mission, no timeline, no hardware, no goal – the only specific Obama appears to have provided is we’re not returning to the Moon. Without the option to land on our nearest planetary neighbor, what is our new deep space capsule to do? It’s certainly not ready to go to Mars. It has to do something. So the Asteroid Redirect Mission was dreamed up to fill this void.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Kennedy Space Center Launch Abort Facility Orion spacecraft Exploration Flight Test 1 photo credit Jason Rhian SpaceFlight Insider  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden grew irritated with the NASA Advisory Councils's objections at a Jan. 21 meeting. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden grew irritated with the NASA Advisory Council’s objections during a Jan. 21, 2015, meeting. In so doing, he made some interesting comments about Option B under the ARM effort. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

At a Jan. 21, 2015, meeting, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden practically admitted as much when he grew irritated with the NASA Advisory Council’s skepticism about the mission, stating:

“We’re trying to do a lot of different things and satisfy a lot of people who want us to do a lot of different things, and we thought we found a way that would get a lot of these previously disconnected things put together.”

So that’s the purpose of Option B – not to forge a way ahead to a landing on Mars, not to make humanity a spacefaring civilization, but to “get a lot of previously disconnected things put together.”

It’s the same circular trap NASA has fallen into before. The purpose of the Space Shuttle was to build a space station, and the purpose of the station was to give NASA’s fleet of orbiters a destination to go to. After 17 years, that station – after a seemingly unending period of development – finally began to be built on orbit in 1998. With the loss of the Shuttle Columbia in 2003, almost all of the remaining flights of the Shuttle were flown to complete the station. When that was done, the three remaining orbiters were then relegated to museums and tourist destinations. The vision of an orbiting center of research into methods to send crews further out into space – never materialized.

For the past three decades, NASA has mostly operated under the philosophy of designing and building spacecraft – and then deciding what they will do. What the agency should do is: decide on a destination – one with a foundation in establishing a long-term strategic plan to explore the Solar System – and then build the vehicles which are capable of supporting those objectives. More troubling is the fact that no sooner does NASA get a mandate, then a new president comes into office and attempts to cancel everything his predecessor initiated. Does the goal line get re-positioned every 4-8 years? If so, we’re never going to achieve much of anything – least of all sending crews to Mars.

With the paring down of the ARM to Option B, and the almost universal lack of interest, ARM runs the risk of being canceled. If it is not, then at the very least the Orion capsule will once again be taking American astronauts into cislunar space – perhaps that is something to get somewhat excited about. One can only hope that the next President, whether Republican or Democrat, will yield to the cries of the majority of the space community and redirect NASA’s mission back to the Moon. If we are real lucky, NASA will get a long-term directive, the politicians will get out of the way and actually provide the funding needed to sustain such an effort. However, given NASA’s funding woes since the Nixon era – this is highly unlikely to take place.


The views expressed in this commentary are based off the opinions of the author and do not, necessarily, reflect those of  SpaceFlight Insider

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Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Reader Comments

Good luck with that… if it ever happens.

And Senator Ted Cruz who is now in charge of NASA’s budget and is a n on-supporter of the Space Program and what it does for humanity, like monitoring Global Climate Change (the thing he refuses to acknowledge is real) is running for President in 2016, this does not bode well for US in going to Mars either.

I have acquaintances who are involved in both optical and radio astronomy. All of them would really like to have an optical and radio observatory just around the edge on the far side of the moon because the moon itself would shield the observatory from Earth optical and rf interference.
While a very formidable challenge, all are in agreement that it would still be easier to accomplish than sending a crew to Mars, and a lot more productive.
If one looks at the Bigelow Aerospace website, it appears that they are ready to plunk down a hotel on the moon if they can get it up there. Do we see the moon becoming a tourist trap?
At one time, Mars was allegedly similar to the Earth. Why would we want to inhabit a world that has “died off.” Does the Earth await a similar fate?
If one believes Hollywood Sci-Fi movies, we should be looking for inhabitable worlds, not worlds past their prime.
If it turns out that Mars has vast deposits of some rare form of “unobtanium” material that we desperately need on Earth, then I’m sure the private, commercial sector will find a way to mine it.
So far, though, the publicized results from the Mars probes have revealed only what was generally expected.
I like space exploration, but can we please use a little common sense?

When I first read about Project Constellation and a return to the Moon for (semi) permanent habitation and serious Lunar resource development under the Bush II plan, I thought “at last the U.S. has got it’s manned space flight act together”. But, alas, it was not to be. Advice to the new President, whomever that will be, cancel SLS, cancel ARM, encourage NewSpace, assist SNC Dreamchaser, contract development of Lunar landers (e.g. Dragons), long term Lunar habitats (involve Bigalow), Lunar rovers and mining equipment, use Falcon Heavy’s to get to LEO, develop refuelable space tugs, etc. All could be done virtually under NASA’s existing budget! Are we serious about sustainable HSF beyond LEO? Apparently not!

Paul Scutts, there is no reason to cancel SLS, Arm – yes, SLS – no! SLS is the Deep Space insertion vehicle we need right now. And its 1 Rocket with multiple configurations and Mission parameters, compared to the 2 Rockets of Constellation / Aries Program. Wasting money on ARM, just to prove we can is idiotic. Now go back to the Moon, establish the base then use it as a kick off to Mars. Thats what should be done, and Obama Admin is the one who allegedly cancelled the Moon

With what lunar lander, and money for additional infrastructure?

This article perfectly explain the real situation.
NASA has failed.
Now there are 2 options:
1: the next U.S.President redirect NASA to the moon involving private companies like SpaceX, Boeing and Bigelow.
2: the next U.S.President starts the privatization of NASA, involving all the private companies of the commercial crew program: SpaceX, Boeing and other companies.
SpaceX can take USA on the moon and on Mars in two decades. Obama said about moon: “We’ve been there before.”
But this is not tourism.
We are not choosing where to go the next weekend.
We are writing the U.S. history for this century.
We are deciding for our future and our role in the world and in space.
China and Russia will be on the moon probably before 2030. And they will remain there with lunar bases.
Where will be USA in 2030? around a boulder? Around a table?
The next two years will be decisive for the future of the United States of America.

Quoting the article “For the past three decades, NASA has mostly operated under the philosophy of designing and building spacecraft – and then deciding what they will do. What the agency should do is: decide on a destination – one with a foundation in establishing a long-term strategic plan to explore the Solar System – and then build the vehicles which are capable of supporting those objectives.”

why assume that a destination is the first thing needed in defining a long-term strategic plan to explore the Solar System? And why is that a worthy endevour?

Could not agree more that the ARM/boulder RM is a big waste of money. Man has already done in space in one form or another everything envisioned. The elephant in the room is that man cannot survive the radiation environment beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field for a useful length of time to do a serious colonization of the moon or Mars. All this other stuff (ARM, moon base talk) is just to keep an industrial base together until such technology to keep man alive in space along with more mass-efficient energy and propulsion sources are developed.

By the way, surviving on the moon would be one of the hardest places to do so. Extremes of hot and cold in the course of a month much greater than what would be encountered on Mars.

Another large animal is likely in the room, let’s call it a bull. That animal represents those who hope to cherry pick humanity to colonize somewhere beyond Earth with the hopes of creating a utopia. Given the realities of human nature, human utopia is an oxymoron, or in other words a lot of expensive bull. It is much cheaper to cherry pick some people and sequester them away somewhere on Earth to prove that out. Let’s not abuse the tax payer to test that in space.

There are quite a few other physiological issues man does not do well with in a micro-gravity environment as well. Exercise, diet and pills can overcome many of them, but not yet all. When are we going to try a manned spacecraft with a spinning section to simulate some amount of gravity by accelerations? That would be a good short term goal with some long term potential value.

Until we invent some mass-affordable and energy-affordable shielding against cosmic radiation, manned exploration of space is not realistic. Telescopes let us explore at the speed of light for a good return on the dollar, euro, ruble, yuan, or rupee. Robotic probes are a great value, too, when compared for any kind of manned exploration effort past LEO.

If that is too boring, let’s go see what else is beneath the seas.

Thanks for reading. Keep in mind this is all commenting and opinion about an opinion article.

Exploration is not a bad thing. Scientific research and human colonization of space are not bad things.
Colonization of space is the only chance for humanity to survive in the future. Because universe is a very hard place to live and an intelligent species cannot decide that earth is a safe place, because earth is not a safe place. For a lot of differen threats. Not only asteroids.
Everyone knows that humanity is only at the begin of space exploration, not at the end.
The problem of radiations and microgravity will be solved, humans don’t fear to search solutions.
Humans are not a resigned species.
Microgravity is not a problem, because in the future we will have rotating modules for the long trips in space, and this is not science fiction, but only actual technology.
Radiations are not a problem, because everybody knows that a base on the moon or on mars is possible if we put it under a layer of lunar or martian terrain. And there are also other solutions.
Variations of temperature on the moon are not an insurmountable problem, especially if we have a base under lunar terrain.
Humans are not wimps. Humans are explorers. And the man who think to stop human space exploration and scientific research because he fears the unknown, is fortunately not yet born!

I understand your points, but think your article is too negative. Anything we can learn about redirecting asteroids will save humankind. It’s interesting you almost never see anyone being negative about the TREMENDOUS waste in the US military budget.

With respect to the author, the ARM mission advances the technology necessary to go to Mars while returning to the Moon does not.

It is interesting that the author is critical of the Space Shuttle, ISS and commercial crew. Indeed commercial cargo and crew is perhaps the most exciting development in spaceflight in over a decade. Spacex is a product of this NASA initiative and through them the USA is benefiting by lowered launch costs and will benefit from relatively inexpensive human access to space. That commercial crew is not yet in operation and won’t be until 2017 is a result of the failure by congress to fully fund the administration’s budget requests.

It is also interesting that the author refers to the Orion capsule as “inexpensive”, because it is anything but. The true boondoggle is the multibillion dollar annual spending on SLS and Orion. Given that Spacex would be capable of sending humans on a lunar return mission (once its crewed capsule and F9 heavy lift rocket is in operation) the spending on SLS/Orion seems unnecessary as the capability will exist with no additional development cost.

SLS and Orion are designed for lunar space and are a construct of congress and not the administration. What the administration would prefer to do, and what I believe they should do, is be funding technology advancements in the areas of propulsion, life support, radiation protection, habitation modules and EDL vehicles. To be fair NASA is funding these things, and the ISS is extremely helpful in this regard, but after paying for SLS/Orion there is little funding left.

NASA is obligated by congress to use SLS/Orion, but doesn’t have anything to do with them, thus the ARM mission. At least arm will be a useful technology demonstrator, returning the moon does not address the listed items above which will be required to go Mars.

Who is the author of the op-ed?

I believe the author is Collin Skocik, since his name is at the top of the op-ed

ARM actually can provide the technologies we need — not only to get to Mars, but to make Mars affordable in this political environment where NASA’s budgets are too low. Unfortunately, NASA has not capitalized on ARM the way that it should. The technologies that ARM will develop should include mining of asteroids to extract water. Water can be used as radiation shielding material — one 7 meter diameter Carbonaceous Chondrite asteroid will have enough water to provide radiation shielding for a half dozen Orion spacecraft. Water also provides rocket propellant at a fraction of the cost of launching it from Earth. (If we use water as radiation shielding then we need more propellant to send the extra mass to Mars affordably.) Studies have shown that if we use resources from asteroids and the Moon, as well as the resources of Mars, then we can reduce the cost of Mars missions to just a third or even just a fifth of the expected overall cost.

Unfortunately, critics find it easy to ignore this positive aspect of ARM (as in this article) because NASA has failed to make specific plans for asteroid mining after the first part of the mission is completed. Settling those plans would change the course of this conversation. It would make the mission more understandable and exciting to the public. It would prove that the US is taking a leadership role in expanding the human economic sphere beyond Earth. It would put us on a path of sustainable solar system exploration, not another Apollo-style program that strains the budget until the next administration cancels the whole thing. Getting to Mars that way would not be good for humanity’s long-term prospects in space. On the other hand, starting up mining and manufacturing in cis-lunar space, using both asteroids and the Moon, would not only get us to Mars, it would help humanity far beyond that brief series of sorties.

Without plans to utilize resources in space, Mars itself will become the boondoggle.

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