Congress is about to begin consideration of NASA’s fiscal 2016 budget request, which includes $220 million for the controversial Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Two years after it was proposed by the Obama Administration, ARM still has few supporters. Why, and what can be done to change the equation?

Fundamentally, ARM is two good ideas kluged together into one bewildering idea that NASA itself seems unable to explain effectively. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s hand-picked advisers on the NASA Advisory Council have debated the problem in recent meetings.

The council’s question basically is -- how does moving a rock from one place in the solar system to another get us to Mars?

ARM involves developing high-power solar electric propulsion (SEP). Good idea. It has many uses in Earth orbit and deep space, including support of human exploration of Mars.  

ARM involves sending astronauts to cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) for up to three weeks at a time. Good idea. Breaking the umbilical cord to Earth is a necessary step to Mars.   

ARM involves moving an asteroid to lunar orbit.

Huh?

ARM evolved from President Obama’s April 2010 directive that NASA send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as the next step toward human exploration of Mars. NASA determined that sending astronauts on a multi-month trip to an asteroid in its native orbit was not feasible now.  Among other things, it requires a habitation module in addition to the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System. There is no room in NASA’s budget for such a module.

ARM emerged as an alternative – bring an asteroid to the astronauts.  A robotic probe, powered by solar electric propulsion would be used to nudge an asteroid from its native orbit into an orbit around the Moon, which is accessible by the version of Orion currently under development. The astronauts would visit the asteroid, collect a sample and bring it back to Earth. That would check the “send astronauts to an asteroid” box.

The problem is explaining how that relates to the original intent of using a journey to an asteroid as a steppingstone to Mars, where the distance from Earth is a critical element. NASA instead has come up with a laundry list of objectives that ostensibly could be met with ARM, apparently hoping that one or more will appeal to enough people to win approval.  So far, it hasn’t worked.  The messaging on ARM is too diffuse to gain a critical mass of support.  

The one item that piques a lot of interest is the idea that ARM will lead to technologies to defend Earth from threatening asteroids (“planetary defense”).  Although that gets a lot of attention, it actually is not an expected outcome of ARM.  Bolden himself has said more than once that NASA is “not going to save the planet” through ARM.  Among other things, ARM is focused on small asteroids (or a piece of an asteroid), not the large asteroids that threaten Earth.  Whether any technology designed for ARM would be scalable to the much larger hazardous asteroids is completely unclear.

NASA has a mandate from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to take the lead in performing an “options analysis and assessment of the technologies that may be applicable to [near Earth orbit] mitigation/deflection (along with preliminary research and development activities concerning such technologies and activities…)”. That quote is from OSTP’s 2010 response to Congress on U.S. government roles and missions regarding threats from asteroids (and comets). OSTP sidestepped the issue of what agency would actually be tasked with defending Earth and instead focused on who should raise the alarm (a combination of NASA, Federal Emergency Management Administration and the State Department), but did direct NASA to do the options analysis and preliminary R&D.

NASA should do that. It is not part of ARM, however, and is separate from the goal of sending astronauts to Mars. NASA needs an Asteroid Deflection Technology Development program, not ARM.

As for human exploration of Mars, NASA already has concepts full of steppingstones that do not require moving a rock to lunar orbit. ARM is an impediment, not an enabler, to that goal. Not only is it a drain on agency resources, but ARM requires astronauts to perform a spacewalk from Orion to collect a sample of the asteroid.  NASA does not have specialized spacesuits for that task and is trying to make do with what it has.  Furthermore, the timing of an ARM-related cis-lunar mission gets trapped in efforts to find an asteroid with the correct characteristics (size, spin rate, etc.) and the orbital dynamics associated with moving it to lunar orbit.

The Orion missions and what the astronauts will do during those excursions need to be crafted with the goal of journeys to Mars in mind, not climbing around on an asteroid and trying to get a sample, without tearing a spacesuit, on a schedule determined by asteroid celestial mechanics.

Not to mention that robotic probes already have a lock on obtaining samples of asteroids. Japan launched its second robotic asteroid sample return mission (Hayabusa2) three months ago and NASA is getting ready to launch its own (OSIRIS-REx) next year. Humans in space are not needed for that task.

Human exploration of Mars and developing technologies to deflect asteroids are two useful objectives, but they need to be untangled to be accomplished effectively. There is no need for ARM other than to meet a political requirement of an administration that has only two years left in office.

Of the $220 million for ARM in NASA’s fiscal 2016 budget request, all but $43 million is for activities that NASA says it would undertake even if there was no ARM. The $43 million is for formulation of the ARM mission ($38 million) and the asteroid initiative in the Chief Technologist’s Office ($7 million) related to the White House’s Asteroid Grand Challenge.

Why not reallocate that money and the out-year ARM funding, which NASA says will total about $1.25 billion, to SEP, asteroid deflection technologies, and ongoing efforts to find and track asteroids?

The Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) should continue to develop Orion and the Space Launch System and plans for astronaut missions of increasing duration to cislunar space.  HEOMD officials already insist that if no asteroid arrives in lunar orbit because the ARM mission fails it will not make any difference. So why waste money on it?

The Science Mission Directorate should keep searching for asteroids and establish a formal program office for those efforts as recommended last year by NASA’s inspector general.

The Space Technology Mission Directorate should continue to develop high power SEP and create an Asteroid Deflection Technology Demonstration Program using funds that were to be spent on ARM.

ARM should become a footnote in history.

It’s a win, win, win situation.