NASA Announces Option B (Or is it Plan 9)? From Outer Space

On Wednesday, March 25, NASA announced that it had reached a decision regarding which option the agency is to pursue as part of its Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM.

In what came as no great surprise to those who have been following the space agency’s painful struggle to come up with an achievable mission plausibly connected to the goal of visiting an asteroid in the 2020’s, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that he had selected Option B, which involves picking a boulder off the selected asteroid and bringing to lunar orbit for eventual inspection by astronauts.

Artist's Impression of ARM Plan B Image Credit NASA

Artist’s Impression of ARM Plan B
Image Credit NASA

The complete NASA announcement regarding plan B is here, but if the initial reception described in this SpaceNews article is any guide, it may have more in common with “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”

NASA’s own treatment of the subject has not helped. As initially presented to the public during President Barack Obama’s April 15, 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center in which he formally announced the decision to cancel Project Constellation and a return to the Moon, the President suggested that the nation should travel to an asteroid instead. At the time, that goal was interpreted to mean long duration space journey to a Near Earth Asteroid, or NEA. It quickly became apparent however, that there were two significant problems, one of which was nearly insurmountable.

The first issue was the very small list of suitable known asteroid candidates whose orbits matched those necessary to enable a human visit in the time frame envisioned. This was consequence of NASA’s somewhat scatter-shot and badly underfunded efforts to perform a complete census of these potentially hazardous space bodies, an issue which has drawn heavy criticism from multiple sources including the agency’s own Inspector General. The Administration it seems, had put the cart before the horse.

The real problem however, was that it did not have a cart to begin with. As details of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft emerged from the ashes of Project Constellation, it became clear that despite spending more than 20 billion dollars in development through its first crewed launch, now scheduled for no earlier than 2021, NASA would not have the funds to develop a habitation  module, and thus would lack the ability to send Orion anywhere beyond lunar orbit and a trip limited to approximately 21 days. Actually going to some NEA’s would require ten times that duration.

The only way to keep the Administration’s goal then, was a careful parsing of words, with special emphasis on the word “visit.” The President had never actually ever specified what asteroid NASA might travel to, nor where, thereby leaving the door open for a creative interpretation. If we couldn’t go to an asteroid, perhaps we could bring one closer to Earth? And thus Asteroid Redirect was born, an with it the goal of capturing a smallish asteroid and using solar electric propulsion to drop it into an Orion accessible lunar orbit. The demands of such a mission would push help push the envelope in solar electrical propulsion even as it offered some limited insight into asteroid deflection techniques. Most importantly of all however, it would give SLS/Orion something, anything to do, no matter how trivial it might seem compared against the agency’s gloried past or the “Journey to Mars” which it believes is the future.

As it turned out however, the lack of adequate prior study, this time of smaller NEAs, meant that the number of candidates was still limited, and with time running out to select an asteroid, mount a never been done before retrieval mission and successfully bring it into lunar orbit, it was necessary to once again define the goals down, and consider the most limited option of all, landing on an asteroid, gathering up a large boulder, in other words, a rock, and bringing it back instead.

And so it comes to this.

More than twenty years after President George Bush introduced the Vision for Space Exploration, suggesting that it was time for the U.S. space program to look beyond Low Earth Orbit and focus on returning to the Moon, that is precisely what we are going to do, in a perverse sort of way.

It won’t be the boring old Moon which we left in 1972, but instead a new moon, or perhaps more properly, a mini-moon, plucked off the surface of asteroid 2008 EV-5. If we’re lucky, it will be approximately the size of another hit from two decades ago, a 2004 Dodge Caravan.

Even the selection of the asteroid itself is problematical. One of three likely candidates, the other two, Itokawa and Bennu will have already been visited, the former by Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft, and the latter by NASA’s own OSIRIS-Rex, which launches next year.

If the agency had hoped the official selection of Option B would be the start of something new, it chose an interesting way of doing so. After delaying the initial press conference scheduled for December 17 for “further study,” the agency provided only two hours notice prior before Wednesday’s announcement, a time slot which happened to coincide with the confirmation hearing for NASA’s new Deputy Administrator Dava Newman.

So for better or worse, with the selection of Option B, NASA now has a mission beyond simply flying a crewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon…barely. Will it be enough to overcome the criticism, much of it self-inflicted, and build a consensus that this is a mission worth doing?

America’s space agency can only hope that it actually has something deeper than word play in common with Plan 9 From Outer Space, once labeled “the worst movie ever made.” At some point a bad idea becomes so bad, that you actually start to like it.

Posted in: Asteroids, NASA

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