NASA planning asteroid mission reviews despite funding uncertainty

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SEATTLE — NASA is moving ahead with a key review of its controversial asteroid mission in July, and plans to soon thereafter solicit payloads and investigators for its robotic element, despite uncertainty about the mission’s future in Congress.

In a June 22 presentation at the NewSpace 2016 conference here, Michele Gates, NASA program director for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), said the mission’s robotic portion is on track for a July 15 review known as Key Decision Point B.

This review is to determine if the mission is ready to proceed into a further design and technology development phase known as Phase B. That will further refine the mission concept and lead to official cost and schedule estimates for the mission. NASA stated earlier this year it’s now planning to launch the robotic mission in late 2021, a year later than previous estimates, at a cost excluding launch and operations of no more than $1.25 billion.

Once the review is completed, Gates said NASA plans to issue several solicitations related to the ARM’s robotic element, which will fly to a near Earth asteroid, grab a boulder several meters across from the surface, and return it to cislunar space.

One will seek hosted payloads that could fly on the spacecraft. Those could include payloads for science, in situ resource utilization, planetary defense and asteroid mining. That request will be released in late July or early August, she said.

A second solicitation will seek applications to join the robotic mission’s investigation team. “Our investigation team is intended to operate similarly to how the science teams on NASA science missions operate,” she said. “They will help us define the mission as well as select that asteroid boulder when we arrive at that parent asteroid.”

NASA will also continue work of the use of commercial spacecraft buses incorporating solar electric propulsion for use on the mission. NASA issued four study contracts in January to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and Space Systems Loral. The contracts, valued at $1 million each, are scheduled to last for six months to study the suitability of those buses for ARM. Gates said a competition for the next phase of that effort, leading to the selection of a company to provide that bus, would get underway after the Key Decision Point B review.

The decision to seek a commercial bus, she said, came out of responses to previous requests for information and broad concept studies for ARM. “We were originally planning an in-house build for the spacecraft,” she said. Those studies, and commercial interest in supplying the bus, led NASA to choose to acquire the bus commercially instead.

Those efforts are continuing despite opposition to the overall ARM concept in Congress. Language in the report accompanying the House version of a fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill that funds NASA would prohibit the agency from spending any money on ARM-related work.

“[T]he Committee believes that neither a robotic nor a crewed mission to an asteroid appreciably contribute to the overarching mission to Mars,” states the report for the commerce, justice and science appropriations bill, approved by the House Appropriations Committee May 24. “Toward that end, no funds are included in this bill for NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid.”

Gates said after her conference presentation that selections of proposals from the various solicitations planned for later this summer would not take place until early 2017. By that time, she said, NASA should better understand what funding, if any, will be available for ARM-related projects.

While she did not directly address the House language in her conference talk, she hinted at the challenges the program faced. “The process is more partisan than I’ve ever seen it,” she said of the overall process of getting funding for agency programs.