NASA is looking for a rock. It’s got to be out there somewhere — a small asteroid circling the sun and passing close to Earth. It can’t be too big or too small. Something 20 to 30 feet in diameter would work. It can’t be spinning too rapidly, or tumbling knees over elbows. It can’t be a speed demon. And it shouldn’t be a heap of loose material, like a rubble pile.
The rock, if it can be found, would be the target for what NASA calls the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Almost out of nowhere it has emerged as a central element of NASA’s human spaceflight strategy for the next decade. Rarely has the agency proposed an idea so controversial among lawmakers, so fraught with technical and scientific uncertainties, and so hard to explain to ordinary people.
DESTINATION UNKNOWN: An occasional series on the future of NASA, the international space station, entrepreneurial space ventures, Mars exploration, planetary science and astronomy. This first installment is based on interviews with NASA officials in Cape Canaveral, Houston, Pasadena and Washington, and with outside scientists, engineers and space policy analysts.
The mission, which could cost upward of $2 billion, would use a robotic spacecraft to snag the small rock and haul it into a stable orbit around the moon. Then, according to NASA’s plan, astronauts would blast off in a new space capsule atop a new jumbo rocket, fly toward the moon, go into lunar orbit, and rendezvous with the robotic spacecraft and the captured rock. They’d put on spacewalking suits, clamber out of the capsule and examine the rock in its bag, taking samples. This would ideally happen, NASA has said, in 2021.
“That’s our plan,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s top official for space technology. “We have to merge it with reality.”
Plans, goals, dreams and technological realities are difficult to sort through these days at NASA. The space agency has what might be called middle-age problems.
Founded 55 years ago, NASA had its greatest glory in its youth, with the moon shots, and it retains much engineering talent and lofty aspirations. But even as the agency talks of expanding civilization throughout the solar system, it has been forced to recognize its limitations. Flat budgets have become declining budgets. The joke among agency officials is that, when it comes to budgets, flat is the new up.
NASA currently lacks the money and the technology to do what it has long dreamed of doing, which is to send astronauts to Mars and bring them safely back to Earth. It has resorted to fallback plans, and to fallbacks to the fallbacks.
Thus was born this improbable Asteroid Redirect Mission.
How to catch a space rock
The human spaceflight program has long been searching for a mission beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). That’s where NASA has been sending astronauts since the 1970s, and where the underappreciated international space station circles the planet, currently occupied by two Americans, three Russians and an Italian.
The asteroid mission not only goes beyond LEO, it scratches many other itches at the agency. NASA has marketed this as planetary defense — a way to get the upper hand on asteroids that could potentially smash into Earth. The agency also has said this could boost the commercial mining of asteroids for their minerals, thus expanding humanity’s economic zone. And the robotic part of the proposal involves new propulsion technology that NASA thinks could be crucial for an eventual human mission to Mars.
There are also political factors. President Obama vowed in 2010 to send humans to an asteroid. NASA officials have said this mission meets that goal.
Most important, the ensnared asteroid would provide a destination beyond LEO for new, expensive hardware that NASA is already building: the big rocket called the Space Launch System, and the Orion crew capsule. The mission could deflect accusations that the government is building rocket ships to nowhere.
“It is really an elegant bringing together of our exciting human spaceflight plan, scientific interest, being able to protect our planet, and utilizing the technology we had invested in and were already investing in,” said Lori Garver, NASA deputy administrator.
But the mission is viewed skeptically by many in the space community. At a July gathering of engineers and scientists at the National Academy of Sciences, veteran engineer Gentry Lee expressed doubt that the complicated elements of the mission could come together by 2021, and said the many uncertainties would boost the costs.
“I’m trying very, very hard to look at the positive side of this, or what I would call the possible positive side,” he said.
“It’s basically wishful thinking in a lot of ways – that there’s a suitable target, that you can find it in time, that you can actually catch it if you go there and bring it back,” said Al Harris, a retired NASA planetary scientist who specializes in asteroids.
“Of course there’s always luck. But how much money do you want to spend on a chance discovery that might have a very low probability?” said Mark Sykes, a planetary scientist who chairs a NASA advisory group on asteroids.
If the target rock isn’t scoped out well in advance, it could even turn out, on close inspection, to be something other than a small asteroid — say, a spent Russian rocket casing that’s footloose around the sun.
NASA officials understand this and have recently been floating a different scenario, a Plan B. Instead of the robotic spacecraft trying to nab a small, little-understood and potentially unruly rock, the spacecraft could travel to a much larger, already-discovered asteroid and break off a chunk to bring back to lunar orbit, where astronauts would visit it.
That would eliminate a lot of unknowns. In space missions, unknowns ratchet up costs and create delays. But under Plan B, the target might be an underwhelming boulder the size of, say, a washing machine. Presumably that’s not what Obama meant in 2010 when he vowed to send humans to an asteroid.
NASA is in a tricky position, trying to improvise a coherent strategy for human spaceflight even as political winds have shifted dramatically. If NASA is lurching along these days, that’s in part because the agency has been jerked around.
Employees for Lockheed Martin work on components of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
NASA has been in difficult transitions before. Doug Cooke, who spent 37 years at the agency before retiring in 2011, remembers the post-Apollo 1970s: “It was scary. You realize that you’re not really flying. And it’s a vulnerable time.”
With the shuttle retired, NASA can no longer launch American astronauts on American rockets, but rather must buy seats at $71 million a pop on Russian spaceships. American taxpayers are sending more than $400 million a year to Russia to launch American astronauts.
The last space shuttle flew in 2011. NASA wants to see American astronauts ride to orbit on commercial spacecraft by 2017, though tight budgets could make that schedule slip by a year or more. Three companies — Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada — are competing for the “commercial crew” contract.
Space shuttle Columbia during liftoff March 1, 2002. After Columbia crashed, the grieving space community decided to rethink the enterprise of human spaceflight. (Anita Barrett/NASA via Associated Press)
NASA’s turmoil dates to the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing the seven astronauts on board. The grieving space community decided to rethink the enterprise of human spaceflight, from the architecture of rockets to the fundamental purpose of launching people off the planet. Many people inside and outside of NASA wanted to get back to exploration, which would mean sending humans beyond Low Earth Orbit for the first time since the late 1960s and early 1970s.
President George W. Bush proposed a plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 as part of a sustained lunar presence. The new NASA program, Constellation, included plans for two rockets, a crew capsule called Orion and a lunar lander.
But at NASA there’s a saying: “Budget is mission-critical.” Constellation’s funding fell short of what the top NASA officials expected. The program fell behind schedule. A new rocket, the Ares I, had some delays and technical problems (then-NASA administrator Michael Griffin would point out that only the PowerPoint rockets always work perfectly).
Barack Obama won the presidency, and Griffin was soon gone, along with Bush’s Constellation program. Obama’s pick to run his NASA transition team, Lori Garver, never liked the back-to-the-moon strategy.
“If your goal is Mars, that is certainly a detour,” she said recently.
Obama appointed Gen. Charles Bolden Jr., a four-time shuttle astronaut, to the administrator position, with Garver as his deputy. The president also tapped retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine to lead an advisory review of the NASA human spaceflight program.
The Augustine committee skewered Constellation, saying that without an infusion of money it wouldn’t get astronauts back to the moon until the late 2020s, and even then there wouldn’t be any money for a lander, much less a moon base.
In killing Constellation, Obama and his team adopted what the Augustine Committee dubbed the “flexible path” strategy. The concept is arguably a sign of institutional maturity: NASA would focus less on destinations, and more on creating new technologies. The idea was to advance spaceflight capabilities, with the long-term goal of sending people to Mars. Commercial companies could take over the routine taxi rides to orbit, and NASA would tackle harder missions.
But there’s a problem with the harder stuff: Often it’s just too hard.
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