Will NASA's Asteroid Mission Go Ahead?

The plan was to send astronauts to an asteroid next decade. NASA

Yesterday we brought you news of the President’s Budget Request for NASA in 2017. There were few surprises, with continued wrangling over the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the upcoming Europa mission. But something has materialized on the back of the announcement.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer, revealed that NASA’s planned mission to send humans to an asteroid might be delayed – and rather significantly, at that.

According to Eric Berger at Ars Technica, Radzanowski let slip that the date for the initial robotic spacecraft required for this mission had slipped from 2020 to as late as 2023. “Don’t get fixated that there’s a delay at this point in time,” he said.

Why is this significant? Well, for those unaware, NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) was the “stepping stone” mission devised by Obama’s administration before manned Mars missions begin, to replace President Bush’s mandate that NASA should return to the Moon first. This would involve using a robotic spacecraft to move an asteroid into orbit around the Moon, before a manned Orion spacecraft visited the asteroid, testing key techniques and technologies ahead of the Mars mission.

But that all relied on the robotic mission launching in 2020, rendezvousing with the asteroid in 2022 and moving a chunk by 2025, around the same time the manned crew would visit. A 3-year delay pushes this back to as late as 2028. Would there be knock-on effects for getting to Mars in the 2030s?

The significance of this, says Berger, is that it shows a lack of confidence in the mission, especially as it was allocated just $66.7 million of the $19 billion total in the budget request. “Nobody believes in the ARM mission,” he quoted an unnamed former senior NASA official as saying. “When the boss says go make this happen, you have to jump. That’s part of the deal. But deep in their hearts, is anybody really sold on ARM? I don’t think so.”

Whether things can stay on track remains to be seen. It does highlight, though, that while good progress continues to be made with Orion and SLS, the lack of a clear operational timeline for the vehicles remains apparent.

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