A March 26, 2014 computer animation of Asteroid Redirect Mission Option B. Video source: NASA.gov Video YouTube channel.
The Orion crew retrieves a sample from the boulder. This video was posted on March 25, 2015, a year later than the above animation. Video source: NASA.gov Video YouTube channel.
UPDATE March 27, 2015 — NASA has released a video that combines new asteroid rendezvous animation with the crew animation. Video source: NASA.gov Video YouTube channel.
When the Barack Obama administration's first NASA budget was presented to Congress on February 1, 2010, it proposed cancelling the Constellation program. Constellation claimed to be a lunar human spaceflight program, but in reality it was a pork-laden fiasco that was years behind schedule and billons of dollars over budget. The October 2009 Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee report concluded that Constellation wouldn't send people to the Moon until the end of the 2020s, if ever, and even then there were no plans for a lunar lander.
The executive summary began with this sentence:
The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory.
So the Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation. The savings would be used to extend the International Space Station, and to prime the pump on commercial cargo and crew programs that would service ISS after the Space Shuttle program retired in 2011.
Members of the congressional space subcommittees unleashed a firestorm of outrage.
In a February 25, 2010 House Science Committee hearing, members of both parties fell all over each other racing to see who could hurl the most outlandish accusations at the testifying witness, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.
Several insisted that NASA human spaceflight needed a “destination,” although they didn't explain why.
On April 15, 2010, President Obama stepped into the eye of the storm. During a speech at the Kennedy Space Center, Obama gave Congress what it claimed it wanted — a destination.
Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we’ll start — we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.
Although those words have been cited many times in the five years since, often overlooked is the following paragraph:
Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies. So I’m challenging NASA to break through these barriers. And we’ll give you the resources to break through these barriers. And I know you will, with ingenuity and intensity, because that’s what you’ve always done.
Earlier in the speech, Obama had proposed:
We will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced “heavy lift rocket” — a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space. In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it.
Congress really hated that part.
It meant an end to the pork flowing to the districts and states of key Congressional members representing NASA space centers and contractors. In the worst recession since the Great Depression, thousands of Constellation-related jobs would be eliminated.
NASA was originally created in 1958 as an aerospace research and development agency. The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act called for the new agency to “contribute materially” to “one or more” of a list of objectives.
One objective was, “The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles.”
But an unintended consequence of President John F. Kennedy's Moon program was that it morphed NASA into a Congressional porkfest. The administrations of Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson assured that Apollo contracts were distributed across the nation.
That tradition remains unchanged a half-century later.
As the above 2003 graph illustrates, NASA likes to brag that it generates jobs in every state — which conveniently assures political support for its continued existence.
So Congress ignored Obama's proposal to increase NASA’s budget by $6 billion over the next five years, and instead directed that Shuttle and Constellation contractors be shifted to a program Congress chose to create itself — the Space Launch System. It was dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics.
Not only was NASA ordered by Congress to design SLS using existing Shuttle and Constellation technology, but NASA was also ordered to use existing Shuttle and Constellation contractors. Section 304 of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act orders the NASA Administrator to “minimize the modification and development of ground infrastructure and maximize the utilization of existing software, vehicle, and mission operations processes.”
So much for new technology.
The political compromise that came out of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act was that, on paper, NASA was going to Mars via an asteroid, so long as SLS and the Orion crew vehicle were used.
Of course, Congress didn't provide adequate funding so, as I write this, the first uncrewed SLS launch is officially two years behind the December 31, 2016 operational date mandated by Section 301(c)(2) of the 2010 Act, and by my estimation it's already slipped again into 2019.
For the last five years, NASA has soldiered on, engaging in the polite fiction that SLS and Orion will take humanity to Mars in the 2030s via an asteroid.
On April 10, 2013, NASA announced the Asteroid Initiative.
An early concept of a robotic craft capturing an asteroid. Image source: NASA.
Inspired by the April 2012 “Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study” by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, NASA proposed to develop a robotic craft by the end of the decade to capture an asteroid and move it to a lunar orbit where astronauts could rendezvous with it.
The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) robotic craft would use solar-electric propulsion, intending to evolve that technology towards one day reducing travel time to Mars.
Once again ... Congress hated it.
The House space subcommittee drafted legislation trying to forbid NASA from doing an asteroid mission, although it eventually failed to pass through both houses of Congress. Subcommittee chair Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) called ARM “a costly and complex distraction.” It should be noted that Rep. Palazzo's district includes Stennis Space Center, which tests the traditional liquid propellant engines that would be rendered obsolete by solar-electric propulsion.
Absent any financial support from Congress, NASA tried to figure out a way to make ARM work within projected budget constraints.
Last year, we learned that NASA was studying two options. The grand rhetoric about rearranging our solar system by moving around asteroids was dropped, as NASA contemplated simply picking a boulder off an asteroid instead.
That option, known as Option B, has won.
An artist's concept of the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle landing atop a boulder. Image source: NASA.
NASA announced on March 25 that “a robotic spacecraft will capture a boulder from the surface of a near-Earth asteroid and move it into a stable orbit around the moon for exploration by astronauts, all in support of advancing the nation’s journey to Mars.”
“The Asteroid Redirect Mission will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight.”
The press release stated that “NASA has identified three valid candidates for the mission so far: Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5,” with possibly one or two more candidates.
(For more on Option B, download this July 2014 presentation to the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group.)
Although most members of the space subcommittees will probably yawn at the latest proposal, one key Republican may be in a position to support ARM.
Space News reported on March 25 that Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is a supporter of solar-electric propulsion. As chair of the House subcommittee that oversees NASA appropriations, he's in a position to influence how much money NASA gets for its programs.
Culberson's west Houston district doesn't include Johnson Space Center, but a 2006 study of his 7th district estimated that over 3,000 former or retired NASA employees live there.
UPDATE March 27, 2015 — Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle tweeted that he's just completed an interview with Rep. Culberson. The congressman is most definitely opposed to ARM. Eric cited his Adrift series article from December 2014 in which he quotes Culberson:
I don’t think there’s a clear consensus on much in Congress, but we all agree that pushing a rock around in space is a waste of taxpayer dollars that we don’t have to spare.
My personal opinion about ARM is that I've always seen it as a back-door attempt to push some of the new technologies promoted by Obama five years ago, solar-electric propulsion in particular.
Recent history has shown us that, as the saying goes, the biggest obstacle to progress is Congress.
Technical innovation won't come from NASA. It will come from the private sector.
Since the Obama administration has been a big proponent of commercial space, I hoped that the original “Option A” would transfer technologies to the nascent U.S. commercial asteroid mining industry, to companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries.
An artist's concept of a Deep Space Industries craft capturing an asteroid for harvesting. Image source: Deep Space Industries.
Option A would seem far more suited for that than Option B. Asteroid mining companies would like to capture and move an asteroid to a stable parking place, so it can be harvested by a fuel processor. (For more on this, see my March 15 book review of Asteroid Mining 101.)
Option B doesn't seem to do much for technology transfer, other than the solar-electric propulsion demonstration and perhaps some precision robot flying.
But it's something for SLS and Orion to do — even if it maintains the polite fiction that this is a first step in human travel to Mars.
Hopefully NASA will run a contest to name its asteroid landing vehicle. I propose “Plucky.”