Congressional Hearing Takeaway: NASA May Lose its ARM, Yet Reach for the Moon


On February 3rd, Congress held another in an a seemingly endless line of hearings to discus NASA’s human space flight program. As usual, nothing was decided other than the fact that everyone seemed to agree with the assertion that what NASA is saying is a plan, is not one at all, and that some sort of plan is needed. The press loves “NASA is lost in Space” headlines almost as much as it enjoys casting nearly everything that happens above the Karman line as part of a new “space race.” In this case however, the headlines are nearly writing themselves.

Wednesday’s hearing took place the before House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space. It was chaired by Rep. Brian Babin  of Texas (R) with Rep. Donna Edwards of MD serving as the ranking Democrat.

This particular hearing did not include anyone from NASA, but rather 3 members of the wider space community speaking for themselves rather than their affiliated organizations. They were Tom Young, a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), Paul Spudis, senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute and John Sommerer, who chaired a technical panel on the National Academy of Sciences Pathways To Exploration report in 2014.

As usual, Spacepolicyonline has a detailed writeup of the event, but the basic facts are as follows.

First, there is absolutely no love for the Asteroid ReDirect Mission or (ARM) coming from any quarter.

“Republican members of the subcommittee and the chairman of the full committee, Rep, Lamar Smith (R-TX) continued their attacks on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as unnecessary and a waste of resources.   Democratic members, including the ranking Democrat of the full committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), did not defend ARM, and Edwards said NASA’s current Evolvable Mars Campaign strategy does not answer the question of whether an asteroid mission is a necessary element of the humans-to-Mars goal.”

As if lack of support for ARM on both sides of the aisle weren’t bad enough, it goes on to say that “none of the witnesses offered support for ARM either.” Adding to the fire, the NASA Advisory Council or NAC is openly questioning the $1.25 billion cost estimate put forward by the space agency.

In other words, NASA is in grave danger of losing its ARM, a possibility which begs the question of what could replace it. The agency would of course say “Journey to Mars,” which is what it says to everything, no matter how tenuously connected it might be. It may depend on what the meaning of the word “Journey” is, above and beyond several iconic power ballads. In the current context, America’s space agency is belting out “Don’t Stop Believing.”

Unfortunately when it comes to making the case that we really are on a “Journey to Mars” nobody seemed particularly convinced of that fact due to the lack of a specific plan and at least a vague notion of what it might cost to get there.

“Young calculated that if NASA’s current level of funding for human spaceflight, about $9 billion in FY2016, is maintained for the next 20 years, $180 billion will be available over that period of time…he wants humans to land on Mars not just orbit it and he thinks it will cost more than the $180 billion.”

“Sommerer said that his panel estimated that it would take 20-40 years to get people on Mars and cost “half a trillion dollars.””

To some extent NASA is in a hopeless place, being asked to provide numbers for a program which is too vague to be defined at this point, while saddled with the expense of launch system which was designed by the very body, Congress, which now wants answers.  To make matters worse, the moment the numbers do go out, they become a bludgeon which will likely be turned against the agency, as has happened before.

At the same time, lacking a plan presents its own risk:

“That makes crafting a detailed plan, especially in the few months before a new President is elected, a daunting challenge.   Without it, though, as committee members and witnesses expressed yesterday, there is concern that the current elements of the program — SLS and Orion — could end up on the chopping block.”

A humble prediction here. Whether it includes Russia or not, NASA is about a year away from concluding that while it can certainly maintain Mars as a longer term objective, the Moon itself, and not just cislunar space, is an appropriate stepping stone along way. It is the only option which gives SLS something to do.

Posted in: Mars, Moon, NASA

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3 Comments on "Congressional Hearing Takeaway: NASA May Lose its ARM, Yet Reach for the Moon"

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  1. PK Sink says:

    “SLS and Orion — could end up on the chopping block.”

    I don’t see congress letting that happen anytime soon.

    “the Moon itself, and not just cislunar space, is an appropriate stepping stone along way. It is the only option which gives SLS something to do.”

    Naw. I’d rather see telerobotic operations from the cislunar hab, including: resource prospecting, extracting, storing, and 3-D contour crafting.

    • Zed_Weasel says:

      You don’t need the SLS for cislunar operations. Without the SLS, you also don’t need the Orion. A deep space habitat with longer than 21 days endurance is what is required serviced by commercial crew vehicles.

      Tele-operated vehicles will be control from Earth. There is no reason why a costly crewed hab have to be deployed and supported for unmanned Lunar surface operations.

  2. Michael Smith says:

    Does NASA need to be involved in manned spaceflight at all? NASA’s manned spaceflight plans are like a flag blowing in the wind. It all seems to be moving but the reality it is going nowhere. In the years to come, NASA’s manned spaceflight program will be clearly seen as a pointless exercise and an obvious waste of public money (if it isn’t already). The moon, mars, asteroids – objectives with no long term goals. It is time for NASA to stop trying to relive Apollo. Let private industry take us to deep space. NASA needs to focus where its expertise is currently reaping benefit – unmanned space exploration. NASA can be the vanguard for future manned deep space exploration through its robotic exploration of the solar system. The accelerating pace of commercial space exploration will see NASA surpassed in the rush to extend humanities presence in deep space. It is already clear that NASA’s role in manned spaceflight has ended. It’s just that NASA and those who gain financially from the current senselessness wont accept it.

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