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