First of all I want to thank the many many people who have signed up to follow this blog recently. In this blog I primarily talk about space. I would bet a lot that many of my new readers are not as familiar with the terms and acronyms associated with NASA and space. So, I will try and write this in a way as to convey information, rather than just throw these acronyms, such as ARM in the title above. For those who read this who know all of this cold I ask for patience as it is important that more folks than just us people who know the inside baseball of NASA policy be informed.
NASA Asteroid Mission Slammed by Asteroid Mission Advocates
Today (Monday November 11, 2014), an article in Scientific American titled “NASA’s Plan to Visit an Asteroid Faces a Rocky Start.” A punny title but the article is about a real controversy related to the current NASA plan. The plan is to go out and retrieve a small asteroid, bring it back into Earth orbit, and then send a crew up to visit it, examine it, and bring back samples. The problem is that many, even those in the asteroid advocacy community, are opposed to the mission. The most devastating and blunt criticism came from Mark Sykes, Director of the Planetary Science Institute. “I’m not a big fan of human space exploration as performance art, which is what ARM is, because the problem with performance art is that your next trick has to be bigger than your last trick, and that quickly gets unsustainable. ARM will never be funded. It will never happen. It’s a waste of money. It doesn’t advance anything and everything that could benefit from it could be benefitted far more by other, cheaper, more efficient means.”
Going beyond Sykes criticism the problems with the Mission are many fold but at the end of the day comes down to one word, money. The problem is at the heart of all of NASA’s plans. Even though the asteroid retrieval mission is the least expensive possible mission for the NASA developed Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion vehicle. Skykes makes the claim that even this mission won’t be funded. There is some merit to that position in that NASA’s plans for at least the last 30 years have been far bigger than their budget. In NASA’s defense it has been their political masters who have given them these tasks but not the money to carry them out. However, this has it seems reached a crisis point to where there are budgets to develop some of the hardware, but no budget to actually take advantage of the hardware that is being designed.
This past week I was interviewed for a documentary. There were many people who were interviewed, including congress people, NASA officials, and other people in the so called “NewSpace” business. What was startling was that, in the context of our interview, which was about exploration, that it was revealed that even the congress people did not see a budget ahead for NASA that makes any kind of sense. The current administration budget run out (the budget for several years downstream, used for planning), only has enough money for about one launch of the heavy lift launch vehicle every four years. The current head of NASA’s exploration department (EOMD) Bill Gerstenmaier, has stated that in order to fly safely the vehicle must fly at least once a year. The industrial base for the heavy lift Space Launch System can only produce one every two years. This is clearly an unsustainable situation for the agency, yet they march on toward the cliff, as their political masters decree. Following is a look at the asteroid mission that is currently the subject of the controversy.
What is ARM?
The Asteroid Retrieval Mission (link to document) or ARM is what NASA is currently planning for their first mission for exploration. The single chart that shows this is reproduced here in figure 1:
The mission as it is constructed today is above (or at least the latest online). It has a large solar electric propulsion system being launched that carries a large “bag” with it to “bag” an asteroid of up to 1,000 tons and bring it back to an orbit that orbits the Moon called a Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO). After the Solar Electric Propulsion system (also called a SEP). After the asteroid and SEP enters the DRO, (see how quickly things can disintegrate into multiple acronyms?), NASA sends a human mission using NASA’s heavy lift launch vehicle and the Orion manned vehicle. This is shown in figure 2:
In figure 2 the NASA Orion crew module, is launched to rendezvous with the solar electric propulsion system and the asteroid that has now been bagged and returned to the distant retrograde orbit. However, this is a greatly pared down mission compared to what they wanted to fly just three years ago when the ARM mission was first announced. Figure 3 shows that mission scenario:
This mission would have been a lot more capable, applicable to future missions, and more fun than the current planned mission. More details are shown here in figure 4:
The details of the mission described in figures 3 and 4 are from the NASA Human Space Flight Architecture (HAT) Overview, by Chris Culbert at the GER workshop in November of 2011. The document link is here.
There is an obvious and distinct difference between figures 1 and 2 vs figures 3 and 4. Lets call the mission in figures 1 and 2 little ARM and the ones in 3 and 4 big ARM. First of all the asteroid chosen for the big ARM mission is 2008EV5 an asteroid that has a high probability of being a Carbonaceous Chondrite. A carbonaceous chondrite is a specific type of asteroid that is known from comparable meteorites found on the ground to have lots of hydrocarbons, water (in clays) as well as many other interesting chemical compounds. A carbonaceous chondrite is a possible target for resource extraction for propellants and other materials of value in space. Here is a link to a scientific paper about 2008EV5.
The other hardware for the big ARM mission looks much more capable than for the little ARM mission. There are two solar electric propulsion systems, and they look much bigger, 300 kilowatts vs the 40-50 kilowatt version on the little ARM mission. There is also a habitat vehicle, looks to be a International Space Station style module along with a Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) that NASA JSC has been using in analog simulations for several years.
In looking at the difference between the little ARM and big ARM mission it is easy to see how Mark Sykes is upset and says what he says about it being a waste of time. To me the big ARM mission looks pretty cool and capable while the little ARM is not. However, I don’t think that Mark is right about not being able to fund it. At the end of the day, the difference between little ARM and big ARM is exactly the cost, and it is more than likely that the political masters have told NASA how much money is available and this is the best that they could come up with, within that political reality.
No Bucks, No Buck Rogers
At the end of the day lack of funding is the perennial problem at NASA since the Apollo era. This is what the article in Scientific American is talking about when it says that there is a shortage of delta-p. I can find no cost estimates for the big ARM mission, but suffice to say the price tag is on the order of most of the cost of a Navy super carrier, approaching $10 billion dollars. In 2012 another study was commissioned, this time with one of the co-leads being Planetary Society co-founder Dr. Louis Friedman. This one is functionally identical with the little ARM mission in figures 1 and 2 and with a price tag of $2.6 billion dollars. Even this amount of money Mark Sykes says is not going to be provided to NASA besides it being a colossal waste of time. I don’t buy this as with spending for the James Webb telescope winding down and the development costs for the SLS and Orion winding down there will be funding wedges available for that mission, but as Sykes accurately asks, what’s the point?
It is my strong opinion that NASA is caught between a rock and a hard place in relation to exploration. The Space Launch System heavy lift launch vehicle is consuming over $3 billion a year. So is the Orion vehicle. ISS is expensive to operate. Science and aeronautics gets its share. Thus NASA has very little money to spend on developing the hardware for actually doing the exploration that congress and the white house has mandated that it do. So, little ARM is the type of mission you get. There are those who would claim that with deficits this high we cannot afford to spend more money on NASA. To me this is not a reason, it is an excuse to continue to increase budgets in other areas.
The simple fact is that since 2005, the federal budget has increased by over a trillion dollars per year while NASA’s budget has barely increased. It is all about priorities. To prove this here is a reprint of a spreadsheet that I did related to the NASA budget. This is shown in table 1 below:
In the above spreadsheet I took the budget numbers available from the White House for the major federal agencies and replicated them in the lower part of the spreadsheet as numbers normalized against a constant 1 for NASA’s budget from 1966 through 2014. As you can see the fraction of the budget allocated to NASA was only surpassed by the defense department in 1966. However, by 2014 NASA’s fractional budget allocation is surpassed by all but two agencies. This strongly indicates that it has never been about the deficit, it has been about priorities when pitted against other national interests. Those who advocate space the way that NASA has done it since Apollo really need to get their heads wrapped around this reality. The only president to provide NASA with a serious budget increase since Apollo was Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s who more than doubled the agency’s budget.
Article Response to Critics
Dr. Louis Friedman had this to say about critics of the little ARM plan;
“What the critics don’t seem to understand is that if we don’t send humans to an asteroid that is moved closer to Earth, we will send humans nowhere for the foreseeable future, which means the next decade or two,” Friedman says. “If we drop this mission, our planned rockets and crew modules can go out as far as the moon but we won’t be able to land without investments that are frankly unrealistic right now.”
Here is where you have to know a bit about Dr. Friedman. He is a very well known advocate for humans to Mars, and has opposed returning to the Moon. As far back as the late 1980’s when I was a student advocate for the return to the Moon, Dr. Friedman casually dismissed my advocacy of lunar industrialization as “Deux ex Machina”. I had to look that one up at the time and here is the definition from Wikipedia:
a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has “painted himself into a corner” and sees no other way out, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or as a comedic device.
Dr. Friedman, as well as many others have the weird opinion (to me), that because we landed on the Moon six times over 40 years ago that it is time to go to the next bright shiny object which is Mars. The problem is that the people that have been advocating this for forty plus years now have never been able to get congress to put up the money to get us there and so now in their twilight years are grasping at the little ARM mission as something that at least gets us in the direction of Mars.
Dr. Friedman dismissed my (and anyone else’s) interest in lunar industrialization as the means to get to the Moon and make it a staging ground for the rest of the solar system simply because it is the way to solve the otherwise unsolvable problem of Mars; just not in the way that he and other advocates of a Mars only architecture want to happen. They keep saying that they are afraid we will get bogged down on the Moon and never get to Mars (or at least not in their lifetime). You can see this in is quoted paragraph that I have bolded. The other unstated statement in the bolded part of his quote is the assumption that the lunar lander a) has to be built by NASA, and b) is so expensive that it is unaffordable. Well that is true of the NASA Constellation Altair lander, but that is hardly the only way to get humans to the surface.
Myself and many others in the NewSpace arena are advocating reintegrating the massive leap forward in robotics, 3D printing, communications, computers, software, and other technologies back into plans for landing on the Moon. Further, this landing is not for another touch and go, which was the joke about the Constellation plan for appeasing president Bush’s goal of a Moon landing, but to stay, and develop the resources of the Moon as a means to build a sustainable Mars exploration program. As for landers, as far back as the Apollo era low cost landers were studied. In the NASA JSC Lunar Gemini project (link here), they would have used a super lightweight lander with existing rockets to get the crew to the surface. It was considered too risky then but there are many ways to make this work now, and very affordably.
Conclusion and Observation
It is my strong opinion, backed by the strewn wreckage of 40 years of plans produced on view foils to power points to advanced pretty graphics, that unless a president comes into office willing to expend political capital to do it, NASA is not going back to Mars in any way that resembles colonization or even extended stays. For our generation, what the heck is the point of planting a few flags and leaving a few footprints in the orange soil of Mars to follow those few in the grey soil of the Moon?
Our generation wants to take the technologies that have been developed, and whose development is accelerating here on the Earth, and begin the actual industrialization of the Moon, the exploitation of the asteroids and the colonization of Mars. Anything else is unacceptable. The economic development of the solar system was a theme 54 years ago by Ralph Cordiner, the CEO of General Electric, who feared that the government dominated program of his era would lead to a dead end. His prophetic words should ring loud in our ears today. I will leave you with his desired end state, a economic development of the solar system, led by a free people. That is cool…
Those guys had vision. Science alone will NEVER get us there. Time to think different about space.