Commercial Firms Push Alternative Approaches for NASA Asteroid Initiative

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HOUSTON — To develop a deep-space exploration program to follow the international space station, NASA cast a wide net, hoping to infuse its plans to detect, engineer and ultimately visit an asteroid with fresh mission concepts, alternative technological approaches and, perhaps most important, partners to share costs, build support and enrich educational outreach. 

But that could spell trouble for the agency’s bellwether initiative, the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle spacecraft, development of which is costing NASA about $3 billion per year. In a pair of space exploration workshops in Houston Sept. 30-Oct. 4, several potential partners presented alternative, lower-cost missions that would fly on upgraded United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets and Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s planned Falcon Heavy boosters. 

“The basic program that we would propose would be modeled on the COTS,” said Deep Space Industries Chief Executive David Gump, referring to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, a public-private partnership that parlayed $684 million in NASA development funds into the SpaceX Dragon and the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo spacecraft, the Falcon 9 and Antares rockets, and two new launch complexes in Florida and Virginia. 

The agency is in the midst of a similar program to develop commercial space taxis to fly astronauts to and from the space station, and has agreed to buy data and services from several firms planning robotic expeditions to the Moon. Gump believes the same commercial approach would benefit NASA’s asteroid initiative.

“Companies get paid for achieving milestones and not just submitting monthly invoices,” Gump said during the Sept. 30 opening day of NASA’s planned three-day Asteroid Initiative Idea Synthesis workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

The official gathering, intended to vet top-rated ideas submitted in response to a NASA solicitation, was canceled Oct. 1 due to the U.S. government shutdown, but part of the group reconvened informally at a nearby hotel to continue discussions.

Those sessions primarily focused on detection and analysis of so-called near-Earth asteroids, the first leg of NASA’s threefold initiative and a topic that already has a sizable and international scientific community, startup commercial enterprises, such as asteroid mining outfits Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, and nonprofits like the B612 Foundation, which is building a space telescope to scout for asteroids that may be on a collision course with Earth. 

In addition to finding potentially hazardous asteroids, NASA wants to move an asteroid or a piece of an asteroid into a high orbit around the Moon. While the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) would serve science and spur technology, its primary goal is to give NASA astronauts a destination for an early SLS/Orion test flight. 

“I think ARM is a very cool mission as currently conceived, and the ‘why’ that NASA has — to give astronauts something to do — is cool, if that’s what you want to do. But we have a different goal — and it may also give astronauts something much more powerful to do,” said Joel Sercel, founder and principal engineer of ICS Associates, a California-based consultancy that is developing an asteroid resource utilization technology called Honey Bee. 

“When Honey Bee is in place, we will have demonstrated the ability to essentially convert a 1,000-ton [near-Earth object] to a propellant depot that could be used to fill the tanks of a manned Mars mission at the top of the gravity well,” saving the need to launch fuels, Sercel said. “That collapses the cost of human exploration to Mars. It allows you to put in place an inexpensive transportation system to go anywhere in cislunar space, which includes low Earth orbit to geostationary orbit.”  

The private sector-first theme was picked up again Oct. 3 at another Houston conference organized by Golden Spike, which is developing commercial human transports to the Moon.

“I think NASA has a role in all of the commercial space activities in the future,” said Gerry Griffin, former director of the Johnson Space Center who now serves as company chairman. 

“That may finally free them to push the technologies out in front of us. Let the commercial sector do most of the grinding. If we’re going to go to Mars, we’re not going to do that commercially,” Griffin said.