When the budget axe fell in 2010 on the Constellation program, NASA’s initiative to follow the completed International Space Station, then-administrator Charlie Bolden likened it to a “death in the family.” The program, started in 2005, was intended to return the U.S. to the moon by 2020 at a cost of about $100 billion. But shortly after President Obama took office, an independent commission determined the project, which already had consumed $9 billion, was behind schedule and severely underfunded. The Obama Administration redirected NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid instead of the moon; like Constellation, the new program was intended to pave the way to eventual human missions to Mars.
Due to some technical and scientific issues involved with sending astronauts out to an asteroid, NASA subsequently revised the mission to bring a piece of an asteroid to the astronauts—the Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM. The plan was to send a robotic spacecraft out to grab a boulder, around 19 feet in diameter, and put it into a high orbit around the moon. Astronauts would then visit the boulder in the mid-2020s, testing systems needed for deep-space exploration.
Earlier today, the Trump Administration released its proposed budget for FY2018, which formally proposed cutting off funding for ARM—the same fate that befell Constellation in the 2011 budget. (And a death we predicted in the run-up to the election.)
NASA is no stranger to having its reset button pushed, and the agency already is making plans to re-use what has been invested in ARM. Many of ARM’s technology initiatives will go into NASA’s recently unveiled Deep Space Gateway, a proposed vehicle assembly hangar, mini-research station and operations base around the moon. Eliminate the boulder-plucking robot arm off the ARM spacecraft and what remains is a powerful solar electric satellite bus that is necessary for any human exploration mission beyond low-Earth orbit, says Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.
“We’ve been pretty clear in the way we’ve done all our solicitations that high-power solar electric propulsion is necessary...so we made sure everything was constructed so that was a severable piece,” Gerstenmaier said during an interview last month. The Gateway will also likely use ARM’s high power solar arrays. “Both of those are moving full steam ahead,” Gerstenmaier said. “We’ll integrate them into something that looks probably a lot like the ARM (spacecraft) bus.”
NASA expects to debut the spacecraft during the second flight of the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and deep-space Orion capsule. Exploration Mission 2, or EM-2 as NASA calls it, will be the first with a crew aboard, and is scheduled to launch around 2022.
Since January 2016, four companies—Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Boeing Phantom Works, Orbital ATK and Space Systems/Loral—have been working on design studies for ARM’s solar electric propulsion spacecraft. In September, NASA invited the firms to submit bids for the spacecraft’s final design and construction. Proposals were due in October and a contract award is pending. So if Congress passes a final 2018 budget that looks like the Administration’s proposal, elements of a mission meant for asteroids will head for the target of the mission it replaced: the moon.