NASA moves ahead with Asteroid Redirect Mission despite cost increase
WASHINGTON — The robotic element of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) has cleared a major review despite a $150 million cost increase that the agency blames on a delayed mission schedule.
NASA announced Aug. 15 that it had approved a review of ARM’s robotic segment known as Key Decision Point B (KDP-B), which allows the mission to move into Phase B of its design and development. That KDP-B review took place last month.
NASA said that, as a part of the review, it increased the mission’s cost cap from $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion, an increase the agency said was based on a decision earlier this year to delay the launch of the robotic mission by one year, to 2021. The new estimate, like the earlier one, does not include launch or operations costs.
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, hinted at the cost increase last month. “The intent is still to live within the effective budget cap, but it may result in a larger number than the budget cap was before because of the one-year slip,” he said at a July 25 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee in Cleveland.
While a NASA statement about the KDP-B review said the delay was linked to an agency decision to “incorporate acquisition of the industry robotic spacecraft development into the project schedule,” Gerstenmaier said last month a shortfall in funding for the program pushed out the schedule and thus increased its overall cost.
“This is the classic problem we get,” he said. “We come in with a funding profile, and then we don’t get the funding we need to start. Then, the mission length becomes longer overall.” That stretched-out schedule, he concluded, “tends to cause program costs to go up.”
At the time, Gerstenmaier said NASA was considering whether the ARM robotic segment could be kept within the previous cost cap by cutting other aspects of the proposed mission. “What we’re debating here is, can we legitimately stay within the cost cap and remove content?” he said. The NASA announcement of the KDP-B review, with its higher cost cap, gave no indication of other changes to the mission.
ARM, as currently designed, will send a robotic spacecraft, likely based on a bus provided by industry, to a near Earth asteroid. Once at the asteroid, the spacecraft will grab a boulder a few meters across from the asteroid’s surface and return it to cislunar space. Astronauts will visit the captured boulder on a later Orion mission, tentatively planned for 2026, as part of NASA’s plans to develop experience in deep space operations prior to a human mission to Mars.
NASA now plans to press ahead with efforts to develop various partnerships for the mission. “With KDP-B under our belt, ARM can now move forward to define partnerships and opportunities for long-term engagement,” said Michele Gates, ARM program manager at NASA Headquarters, in an Aug. 15 statement.
That includes the release in early September of two solicitations, one for hosted payloads that could fly with the ARM robotic spacecraft, and another to join the mission’s “investigation team,” which Gates previously described as being analogous to the teams of scientists who are part of the agency’s science missions.
Like the overall mission, the release of the two ARM solicitations has been delayed. In a June speech, Gates said she expected them to be released in late July or early August.