WASHINGTON — Anyone harboring doubt about whether NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission puts the agency on the road to Mars needs to “get over it,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said here in an April 22 keynote speech at the annual Humans to Mars summit.

For just over a year now, NASA has been publicly promoting a plan to use a new robotic spacecraft to put a boulder-sized asteroid in a lunar storage orbit for astronauts to visit by 2025 — the year by which U.S. President Barack Obama challenged NASA to get a crew to an asteroid. NASA claims the mission, known as ARM, will help mature technology needed for a crewed Mars mission in the 2030s, including the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and the Orion deep-space crew capsule.

But ARM has generated a backlash both on and off Capitol Hill, where Bolden and other NASA officials have been pelted with questions about whether the Moon might be a better steppingstone to Mars, if any steppingstone is required. 

Congress was in recess the day Bolden took the stage at the Humans to Mars summit, organized by the Explore Mars group of Beverly, Mass., but the NASA boss’ message to the audience of ardent Mars enthusiasts on the campus of the George Washington University here was much the same as the one the former shuttle pilot has offered for lawmakers on the Hill.

“We made a decision,” Bolden said in his April 22 keynote. “Some people in this room don’t like it, but we’re on our way,” he said, imploring those in the audience to “help us get it right.”

NASA’s unofficial cost estimate for the robotic portion of the ARM mission, which covers all the expenses of putting a small asteroid in lunar orbit except the cost of launching the robotic retrieval craft, is about $1.25 billion, according to NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. 

The ARM spacecraft would use experimental technology including high-powered solar-electric propulsion the agency believes has crossover potential to the commercial communications satellite industry. The ARM spacecraft would also be built on the same satellite bus NASA plans to use for the solar-electric cargo-hauler needed to support a Mars landing the decade after next, William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told the Humans to Mars audience April 22.

Industry was invited to provide its ideas for the retrieval craft’s bus and major subsystems as part of a March solicitation from NASA. The agency will spread as much as $6 million in study money among 20 to 25 companies under this solicitation, responses for which are due May 5. 

The ARM asteroid is the first target beyond Earth orbit that NASA has singled out for crewed exploration since the Obama administration — which in the realm of human spaceflight favors funding the international space station and commercially designed spacecraft to service it in low Earth orbit — canceled the congressionally blessed Constellation Moon-return program in 2010.

Congress reacted by ordering NASA that same year to build the Constellation-derived, deep-space-capable SLS and Orion, for which lawmakers have subsequently appropriated more money than the White House requests each year while providing less than the administration seeks for commercially designed low Earth orbit systems. SLS and Orion have cost about $3 billion a year to develop since 2010. NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight projects have received about $2 billion since 2010.

The situation has forced NASA to weave a unified narrative from the dueling human-spaceflight mandates the White House and Congress handed down. The main thread of that narrative is the so-called capabilities-based approach to exploring the solar system, which calls for building destination-agnostic hardware that is theoretically capable of surviving the inevitable change in political winds that accompanies inevitable changes in presidential administrations. 

The $100 billion international space station, which already depends on commercially designed cargo systems operated by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif., and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is a central part of the plan. The $100 billion outpost would be used to test life-support and other systems needed by Orion and other crewed spacecraft used for a Mars mission.

Gerstenmaier, a NASA veteran who has himself weathered changes in presidential administrations, touted the cross-administration durability of the capabilities-based approach in his remarks at the Humans to Mars summit on April 22.

“If somebody decides we want to re-vector and do some lunar activities, we can go do lunar activities” with SLS and Orion, Gerstenmaier said. “We’re trying to stay more destination independent but more capability driven, and try to make that point to the next group that comes in with an idea [of] how you put your fingerprint on this.”

But wherever NASA stops first, Gerstenmaier says, Mars is the ultimate goal — and it will take more than the $17.5 billion NASA budget the White House requested for 2015 to get there. Even the token annual raises penciled in through 2019 by NASA and White House budget wizards is not enough, he said.

“We cannot do it at the same budget level we’re at today,” Gerstenmaier said. “This is just not going to work. The current budget has a 1 percent [annual] increase, it’s going to need more than that.”

Bolden too stressed the point, and vowed to ask Congress for “the biggest money we think we can logically go for right now.”

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN


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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...