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Garver: House Bill Only ‘Beginning of the Debate’ on Asteroid Mission

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, speaking at a June 18, 2013 event at NASA headquarters, said NASA needs to do a better job of explaining to Congress how the Asteroid Redirect Mission ties into the agency’s long-term goal of sending human explorers to Mars, and defending Earth agains asteroids. Credit: NASA HQ Photo

WASHINGTON — NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver defended a proposal to send astronauts to a captured asteroid and vowed that the agency would continue to make the case for the mission in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers have targeted the project for termination. 

Congress is preparing to write a new NASA authorization bill and an early draft bill from the House Science space subcommittee forbids any funding for what NASA is now calling its Asteroid Redirect Mission. Announced in April as part of the White House’s 2014 budget request, the mission would use a new robotic spacecraft with solar electric propulsion systems to nudge a nearby asteroid — one from 7 meters to 10 meters in diameter and weighing up to 500 tons — into a high lunar orbit. Early next decade, astronauts would visit the corralled space rock using the Orion crew capsule and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket NASA is building.

The bill’s prohibition against such a mission “is certainly a disappointment,” Garver said at NASA headquarters here June 18 during the agency’s Asteroid Initiative Industry and Partner Day, which included a panel discussion featuring senior agency officials. “[W]e’ve seen in the draft authorization bill from the House leadership, a lack of a recognition ... of the importance of this mission.” 

Garver said NASA needed to do a better job of explaining to Congress how the Asteroid Redirect Mission ties into the agency’s long-term goal of sending human explorers to Mars, and to the defense of the Earth and its population against potentially destructive collisions with asteroids — initiatives that enjoy support among NASA’s congressional overseers in general, and in the draft House authorization bill in particular. 

“We are proceeding the way we have for so many missions, being able to initially outline a concept, but make it better. We don’t in this case just need to explain it better. We need to align it better,” Garver said. “[The panel] talked about a concept we’re looking at that would align it better with those things that we know Congress is driving us to do ... and that is detect those threatening asteroid populations. And if we can get a concept that aligns that better , that might be a way to proceed.

“We’re going to tie that in with all the ideas in this room and on the Internet to make this the best mission possible,” Garver said, adding that the House bill was only “the beginning of the debate” about the mission’s fate.

While some question where the project fits into NASA’s long-term strategy for sending astronauts to Mars and points beyond, the Asteroid Retrieval Mission’s place in the political scheme of things is clear. In 2010, around the time when he canceled the Constellation Moon-exploration program, U.S. President Barack Obama called on NASA to send astronauts to explore an asteroid by 2025. 

President Obama calls for sending astronauts to asteroid in April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center.

When it lifted the curtain on the Asteroid Redirect Mission in April, NASA said the mission would fulfill Obama’s challenge without burdening the agency with an expensive deep-space cruise to some far-orbiting asteroid. 

NASA’s mission is rooted in a concept detailed in an April 2012 study by the Keck Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study, published by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, part of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. Cost estimates for the mission range from $1 billion to just over $2.5 billion. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has said the mission’s actual final tab likely would be somewhere in between. 

Despite the House Science space subcommittee’s generally dim view of the effort, NASA is pressing on with planning for the Asteroid Redirect Mission. During the June 18 Asteroid Initiative Industry and Partner Day, which was attended by representatives of major aerospace companies, NASA released a request for information seeking input on concepts and hardware that could be used both for Asteroid Redirect Mission the agency has publicized since April, and an alternative mission in which a robotic retrieval craft would visit a larger asteroid and harvest a boulder-sized piece of it to return to the Earth-Moon system. 

Responses are due by July 18, NASA said. A public workshop “to obtain input from the broad community on system concepts for the Asteroid Redirect Mission and innovative approaches for planetary defense” will follow sometime in September, according a copy of the request for information NASA posted on its website. A mission concept review for the mission would happen in early 2014, “around the first of the year,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said at the June 18 Industry and Partner Day.

For 2014, NASA has requested $105 million in funding for early work on the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Of that $40 million is for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate to start studying the robotic asteroid retrieval craft, $45 million is for the Space Technology Mission Directorate to accelerate work on the retrieval craft’s solar-electric thrusters, and $20 million is for the Science Mission Directorate to buy more viewing time on telescopes that could help NASA spot a target asteroid for the mission.

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