Is NASA's asteroid mission the agency's political downfall?

Congressional Republicans are wondering why we aren't going to the Moon instead

118

To NASA, the proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission is the next step in human spaceflight, a stepping stone that could test the necessary technologies to get to Mars and put tools within our disposal to avert cosmic catastrophe. To the political world, the mission is an unimaginative boondoggle short on vision.

The Orion capsule has been successfully tested. It’s the first crewed craft since the Apollo era with deep space — rather than low Earth orbit — as the primary focus. The eventual goal of the Orion program is a crewed mission to Mars. But to do that, NASA wants to test the technologies necessary for making that next step.

The mission is to capture an asteroid and reposition it into a stable orbit around the Moon. From there, astronauts would land on the tiny, rocky body — the first time humans will land on another non-Earth part of our solar system since the Apollo program ended in 1972 with Apollo 17. NASA is excited at the prospects of the mission, with a return to human spaceflight and a way to lay the groundwork for Mars or the greater solar system.

"This will be farther than humans have ever gone before from Earth. 71,433 km beyond the Moon," says Michele Gates, program director of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. "It will be the first time we do sampling with crews from one of these primitive bodies from the early solar system."

But the enthusiasm for the mission is less palpable in Congress, where Republicans hate it and Democrats have yet to find a vocal champion for it. To congressional Republicans, the fundamental problem is that the mission’s not to the Moon. When the Asteroid Retrieval Mission came up in 2013, they rejected it. Instead, they wanted moon orbits and moon bases. "It is the policy of the United States that the development of capabilities and technologies necessary for human missions to lunar orbit, the surface of the Moon, the surface of Mars, and beyond shall be the goals of the administration’s human spaceflight program," an authorization draft said.

There’s an odd alliance when it comes to the Republicans in Congress and NASA. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) allies himself with the Tea Party — a group best known for denying anthropogenic climate change and, at times, even evolution itself. But they are often supporters of NASA missions because launch complexes, NASA contractors, test facilities, and other related space enterprises are based in their districts. Culberson, who authored a bill amendment attempting to prevent the EPA from enforcing carbon standards, is a forceful champion of a Europa mission, one of the few mission outlines specifically called for in the Cromnibus bill passed last year.

The latest round of budget negotiations contained surprisingly little language related to the Asteroid Redirect Mission. The agency in general saw a higher-than-expected windfall. Right now, the main focus of mission-specific funding seems to be a probe to Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon which harbors a subterranean ocean. $100 million of the $18 billion allotted to NASA in the Cromnibus bill has been directed specifically to Europa.

Additionally, $2.9 billion will go toward human spaceflight missions, including the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System, with no specific targets laid out in the bill language. This is particularly good for ARM, as it doesn’t set a moon base as a first priority, or explicitly target one mission for promotion or demotion. The Orion capsule is largely expected to ferry astronauts to the near-Earth asteroid destination.

sls concept art

Concept art for the Space Launch System, which NASA hopes will ferry humans to an asteroid — and then Mars. (NASA)

"Pushing a rock around space"

It was a rare reprieve for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which may not be as lucky in the near future. In 2013, House Republicans went after the proposed mission with specific language in a draft of the bill: "The Administrator shall not fund the development of an asteroid redirect mission to send a robotic spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid for rendezvous, redirect and redirection of that asteroid to lunar orbit for exploration by astronauts."

The draft didn’t pass, and there’s since been little direct talk in budget negotiations specifically regarding the mission. So little, in fact, that seemingly no one wants to talk much about the proposed mission in Congress — including calls to more than a few House offices, where the proposal has been especially contentious. But public statements show something between ambivalence and hostility, without an outright champion for the proposal in Congress.

Culberson, is the incoming chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee, is no great fan of the plan, saying, "I don’t think pushing a rock around space is a productive use of their time and scarce resources," in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. Culberson’s office was unavailable for an interview after initial contact with his press secretary.

Lamar Smith — a fellow Texas Republican and chair of Science, Space, and Technology — hates the idea just as much, saying it has "little scientific value" in an op-ed for The Hill, adding, "It’s time the administration put forward an inspirational goal worthy of a great space-faring nation. And the asteroid redirect mission is not it." Smith’s office was unable to schedule an interview for the article, referring us instead to previous statements the congressman had made on the mission.

Then there’s Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas’ firebrand with high aspirations, an ultra-conservative playbook and eyes on the White House. He also happens to oversee NASA now, thanks to a prime spot as chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has authority over NASA. Cruz, a skeptic of anthropogenic climate change, may target NASA atmospheric studies with his newly emboldened platform.

He’s said surprisingly little about the Asteroid Redirect Mission. But NASA is busy winnowing down its list of candidate missions and hoping to launch in the next few years. As it heats up and becomes closer to a reality, the opposition may heat up once again. With a conservative caucus emboldened by recent elections, a mission like the Asteroid Retrieval Mission could fall under the umbrella of dozens of other "wasteful NASA projects" stripped of federal funding, like SETI, the later Apollo missions, and a combined asteroid fly-by / Rosetta-like cometary probe. With a Congress that will hold the federal budget up to a microscope, a mission like the Asteroid Retrieval Mission — not seen as audacious and inspiring by congressional Republicans — might not survive.

nasa's future destinations

Artist's conception of the future of space exploration (NASA)

The ultimate goal

Some in Congress, like Steven Pallazo, an Alabama Republican and the chair of the Space Subcommittee, want to return to the Moon. The Obama administration has instead aimed for new kinds of exploration, including of near-Earth objects. But the problem with an asteroid mission is a quieter narrative, one the administration hopes it can bring people around to.

"We’re opening up the solar system; asteroids are one part of a broader exploration strategy," says a White House official who worked on technology issues for the administration and asked to not be identified. "I think the one thing everyone does agree on is Mars is the ultimate goal."

With Mars in mind, the administration sees the Asteroid Redirect Mission as a stepping stone. Mars is the ultimate goal, after all — it’s continuously outlined in space exploration circles on either side of the aisle.

When President George W. Bush introduced the Constellation plan in 2005, it included a return to the Moon. Like the Asteroid Redirect Mission, the ultimate goal was Mars. President Obama largely gutted the plan in 2010, with the Orion capsule standing as one of the few survivors. "We think of the ARM mission as preparing for Mars," Gates says, adding that the first Orion flight was able to test the capabilities needed for the Asteroid Redirect Mission to be successful.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission would likely use the Orion capsule, which underwent a successful test flight on December 5th. It would also be a proving ground for the Space Launch System, a heavy lift rocket that will be used for further deep space exploration. While the Republicans want the moon, the Obama administration wants the Asteroid Redirect Mission as a cheaper alternative and a way to test technologies.

"NASA is 20 pounds of mission in a 10-pound budget bag," the official says. "We’re trying to have it on a sustainable path, invest in the enabling technologies and hardware like rockets and capsules and solar electric propulsion to open up all kinds of locations."

Orion and SLS both have a lot of proposed funding going into next year. But the Asteroid Redirect Mission has no such love. Cruz will be taking over chairmanship of Commerce, Science, and Transportation from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who is the only person currently in Congress to have been to space as a payload specialist — non-astronaut members of crews often outside the day-to-day NASA operations.

Nelson is one of the few vocal champions of the mission, calling it a "clever concept." It seems that most of the criticism comes from Republicans, but Democratic endorsements are at times half-hearted or not easily won. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), who sits on the Space subcommittee, was initially skeptical of the mission, but turned around toward endorsement, saying she was "mesmerized" by NASA admin Charles Bolden’s description of the mission. Edwards’ office declined to comment for this article.

It seems the champions of the mission are the administration and NASA itself. But without further interference in the 114th Congress, the Asteroid Redirect Mission will move forward on track. It even struggles for respect in some quarters of the scientific community.

Prof. Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary sciences at MIT, is a fierce opponent of the mission as it stands, hoping NASA will instead put its resources toward a wide cataloging of near-Earth objects. Putting an asteroid in orbit around the Moon, to him, is a costly way to "remain in the Earth-Moon cradle," and one he sees little future in.

Instead, he says, a wider survey of near-Earth objects may yield an inexpensive destination, finding bigger and better objects without having to develop the technology to lasso them in. He says that while the ARM would grab one object, "a survey will deliver you thousands at a fraction of the cost."

"Capturing an asteroid has nothing to do with going to Mars."

He is skeptical of it as a stepping stone to Mars. "Capturing an asteroid has nothing to do with going to Mars," he says of the administration’s goal with the mission. "There’s nothing about going to an asteroid that involves going to Mars."

On Tuesday, NASA will decide which way they want to go with the Asteroid Redirect Mission, choosing whether they’ll break off a piece of a larger object and place it into a Lagrangian orbit, or whether they’ll scope out a near-Earth object of a smaller size.

Once it’s decided, they’ll be able to start planning more mission specifics and developing the technologies, like harnesses, solar electric propulsion, and other advances needed to make it a success.

"We need the technologies for highly efficient, sustainable human exploration approaches for mars, where we use solar-electric propulsion to carry cargo and use chemical or other high thrust propulsion for crews," Gates said.

The newly minted Congress could spell continued troubles for the mission, which has struggled to gain a foothold in public approval. The high profile priorities may be in Culberson’s dreams of a Europa mission. Worse things could happen. The ARM could prove a wedge tool to pick apart the funding allocated to NASA. While Republicans like Culberson may be keen on seeing a Europa mission, other costly projects might not survive. If 2013 committee meetings repeat themselves as well, the Asteroid Redirect Mission could end up a scapegoat for the Obama administration’s space policy.

Earth and climate sciences may be in the scopes of politicians like Cruz, but a big wedge like the ARM could well carry over into the new congress. After all, it sets the tone for future endeavors at NASA, especially in crewed exploration. To a group that hardly finds it inspiring and wants to scrutinize government spending, they may use it as a way to put the focus back on the Moon — contrary to the administration’s goals.

Correction: This article initially said the mission would be the first craft since the Apollo era in deep space. In fact, it is the first human-crewed craft; it also misspelled Charles Bolden's name. We regret the errors.


The best of Verge Video