As Orion Rolls Out, Scientific American Questons NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission

After a delay of 24 hours due to bad weather, NASA is preparing to move the Orion spacecraft mounted aboard a Delta Heavy rocket to SLC-37 this evening.  The launch, which will test Orion’s heat shield and basic systems, is scheduled for December 4th.

Meanwhile, an article in Scientific American adds to the growing criticism regarding NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM. (For the Innerspace SLS/Orion section please click here)

“The widespread criticism began after ARM was publicly disclosed in April 2013 and has continued unceasingly. Whether from hopeful astronauts wanting to return to the moon or go to Mars, space scientists opposed to all government-sponsored human spaceflight, government accountants concerned by possible cost growth or congressional Republicans steadfastly opposed to any proposal from Obama, almost every key space policy constituency has found a reason to oppose the mission.”

The piece, which can be found here, goes on to point out that with a deeply skeptical Republican majority taking over the Senate, as well as expanding its control in the House, funding prospects for the mission, which still does not have an official price tag, are dimming even further.

The real problem, at least from the author’s point of view is that NASA has put the cart before the horse in failing to perform an adequate survey of Near Earth Asteroids before narrowing down its target.

“By the time we would tow a tiny rock into lunar orbit, we’ll be discovering more attractive, larger objects passing through the Earth–moon system that are easy to reach,” Binzel says. “A retrieval mission gets you one asteroid, but a survey gets you thousands that you could potentially visit, at a much lower cost.” At current rates of discovery, he adds, NASA will be breaking the law by 2020, when a congressionally mandated deadline expires for the agency to map 90 percent of potentially hazardous asteroids some 140 meters or larger in size. An asteroid-surveying telescope could solve that, too.”

While Scientific American’s criticism regarding ARM is certainly valid, others would argue it misses a larger point, the overall cost of the Space Launch System and Orion capsule itself. Critically, it is that cost and the necessarily slow flight schedule which precludes developing meaningful payloads for the booster and charting destinations for the capsule.

Still, with lunar landings out of fiscal reach for SLS without a major increase in NASA’s budget, it should not come as a surprise to anyone if ARM goes ahead despite its issues.  While Congress may be skeptical of the mission and the Administration which proposed it, space state Representatives are absolutely committed to finding missions for SLS/Orion above all else. Imperfect though it may be, ARM may still represent one of the few credible missions which can be carried out, at least with this architecture.

One more nit to pick, and not a small one either:

Tracing the history of the ARM proposal and the Keck study which helped to shape it, the article cites the Planetary Society’s co-founder Louis Friedman as saying:

“What the critics don’t seem to understand is that if we don’t send humans to an asteroid that is moved closer to Earth, we will send humans nowhere for the foreseeable future, which means the next decade or two,” Friedman says. “If we drop this mission, our planned rockets and crew modules can go out as far as the moon but we won’t be able to land without investments that are frankly unrealistic right now.

That simply is not the case. Lest it be forgotten entirely, the Golden Spike Company lunar proposal, building on hardware available from both SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, offers a very different alternative, one which could lead to a lunar return in very short order.  The biggest catch? It would almost necessarily mean ditching SLS/Orion, at least if NASA signed on in a major way, and that is simply not going to happen.  Still, we should at least be forthcoming about the fact that just because we are not examining alternatives does not mean they do not exist.


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