NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission is still gasping along, but at least one space blogger suggests that its cancellation is all but inevitable. In the meantime, Space News just on Tuesday reported that the space agency has decided that the ARM must actually capture a boulder and take it to a retrograde lunar orbit to be considered a success. This metric was actually in doubt, with some NASA managers suggesting that as long as an unmanned probe, propelled by a solar selection propulsion engine, rendezvoused with an asteroid and then returned, even without anything resembling a rock, it would be a success.
The first problem bedeviling the ARM mission is the matter of how much it would cost. NASA has stuck with the $1.25 billion figure that was presented as the price tag when the mission was first proposed. But the number does not include launch costs, either for the uncrewed asteroid boulder retriever or for the Orion mission that would rendezvous and dock with the boulder in lunar orbit. Nor does the figure include the costs to operate the mission. Added in, the overall cost would likely rise to a sticker shock level of around $3 billion.
The second problem is that the ARM doesn’t serve any scientific purpose. Critics point out that the OSIRISREx mission, which would send a sample return mission to an asteroid, would do much the same thing as ARM, absent the crewed element. The National Research Council is said to have almost recommended that ARM be scrapped and a mission to and from Phobos, a moon of Mars, be conducted instead. The NRC is likely to make this recommendation at the end of July. Such a recommendation would give Congress the ammunition to cancel ARM outright.
The ARM grew out of a throwaway line made by President Barack Obama during his now infamous space policy speech at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010, when he proposed a mission to an Earth-approaching asteroid instead of a return to the moon. However, the proposal turned out to be a bait and switch, for the visit to an asteroid in its native orbit quickly morphed into the ARM, first to retrieve an asteroid, then to snatch a boulder from an asteroid.
Ironically, NASA is slowly edging back toward a return to the moon in its mission planning for the 2020s. A number of missions will be conducted in cis-lunar space to test the technology necessary for a mission to Mars in the late 2030s. Given a way to acquire a lunar lander, this program would likely include one or more lunar surface missions. Such is the legacy of President Obama’s space policy.