Will NASA’s ARM mission to an asteroid be cancelled?
While NASA’s public outreach efforts have focused primarily on going to Mars, the agency’s interim missions – robotic and crewed visits to an asteroid – are facing opposition in Congress.
Originally proposed in 2010 as an alternative to the George W. Bush administration’s Constellation Program, the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) suggested sending a robotic spacecraft to either move a small asteroid or to pluck a boulder off a larger one and then haul the rock to a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon.
Once there, astronauts would fly out from Earth and rendezvous with the captured asteroid in lunar orbit. NASA has stated that the overall mission would provide opportunities to test new technologies needed for the eventual exploration of Mars, including advanced robotics, high-efficiency propulsion, and long-duration life-support systems.
The House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has not been enthusiastic about the asteroid mission to date. In March, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) called the mission “uninspiring”. Addressing NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Smith also complained that ARM’s timeline had slipped twice: first from 2017 to 2020, and then again from 2020 to 2023.
Asteroid exploration has not enjoyed uniform support from the aerospace community, either. Former Apollo astronaut Walt Cunningham suggested in a testimony before the Senate: “If ARM is funded, it should be an unmanned science mission, NOT a manned mission.” Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, likewise, favors direct missions to Mars rather than an interim step.
On May 23, the House appropriations committee was more emphatic in its opposition to ARM, including the following language in the report accompanying their proposed 2017 budget:
“While the Committee recognizes the benefits of some of the technology that is under development as part of the asteroid redirect and retrieval missions […] the Committee believes that neither a robotic nor a crewed mission to an asteroid appreciably contribute to the overarching mission to Mars.”
The report’s language looks to shape NASA’s proposed approach to human exploration, directing the agency to concentrate on specific hardware: “[…] namely deep space habitats, accessing and utilizing space resources, and developing entry, descent, landing, and ascent technologies.” The House did support funding of two pieces of technology that could be used for ARM: solar electric propulsion and nuclear propulsion systems.
Mary Lynne Dittmar, Executive Director at the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, believes that “NASA can go to Mars without the asteroid mission […]. The key technology is advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) systems, which NASA is planning to use to send cargo to Mars.” The House did support funding for solar electric propulsion and nuclear propulsion.
To put an exclamation point on the matter, the House stated: “[…] no funds are included in this bill for NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid.”
During the NASA budget hearings, Administrator Charles Bolden also clashed with House members over funding for the Space Launch System super-heavy-lift rocket, the Orion crew vehicle, and NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, as well as other parts of the agency’s budget. The House budget also will have to be reconciled with the Senate version, which is likely to be quite different given that “Space state” senators like Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) are strong supporters of both SLS and the asteroid mission.
As of now, the Senate has not commented on the House’s position regarding ARM. However, Dittmar believes that “[n]ot commenting on it is addressing it […]. My impression is that the House feels more strongly about this than does the Senate.”
Where this leaves NASA’s Journey to Mars is still yet to be determined. The agency has been promoting an incremental, capability-based approach to getting to Mars, with one of its “strategic principles” being that any Mars program must be “[i]mplementable in the near term with the buying power of current budgets and in the longer term with budgets commensurate with economic growth”. Not surprisingly, there are differing views in Washington D.C. over what that should mean.
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.