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The President-Elect Transition Team (PETT) announced six more members of the NASA "landing party" today. They will join Chris Shank, who arrived at NASA on Monday to begin assessing the status of NASA programs and operations in order to advise the incoming President on what issues require immediate attention.
The six new members are:
Greg Autry, University of Southern California. Autry is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Entrepreneurship who "researches the role of the government in shaping the environment in which new industries and organizations emerge" according to the university's website, which adds that he is a "serial entrepreneur in video games, computer services, Internet content, enterprise applications, health care IT and material upcycling."
Jack Burns, University of Colorado. Burns is a Professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder and director of the Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research (LUNAR), a $6.5 million center of excellence funded by the NASA Lunar Science Institute. He also is Vice President of the American Astronomical Society and previously chaired the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC).
Steve Cook, Dynetics. Cook is Acting President of Dynetics Technical Services and Vice President, Corporate Development at Dynetics. He joined Dynetics in 2009 after almost 20 years at NASA where, from 2005-2009, he was Manager of the Ares Projects to build the Ares I and Ares V rockets for the Bush Administration's Constellation Moon/Mars program.
Rodney Liesveld, NASA (retired). Liesveld is a former senior policy advisor in the NASA Administrator's office for both Mike Griffin and Charlie Bolden. Before joining NASA in 2004, he was Senior Manager, Space Systems, at TASC for three years following a long career in ballistic missile defense and national security space, including Deputy Director, Space & Nuclear Deterrence for the Air Force. He retired from NASA in October 2016.
Sandra Magnus, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Magnus is Executive Director of AIAA and a former astronaut who flew on two space shuttle missions STS-122 and STS-135 (the final shuttle mission) as well as on STS-125 and STS-119 on the way up to and back from a four-and-half-month stay on the International Space Station (Expedition 18). Before joining NASA, she was an engineer at McDonnell Douglas.
Jeff Waksman, former research fellow for Rep. David Schweickert, R-Arizona. Waksman performed his doctoral research on the Madison Symmetric Torus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then worked at IBM's Thomas Watson Lab for two-and-a-half years before joining Rep. Schweickert's staff in August 2016.
Note: This article was updated with the information about and photo of Mr. Liesveld.
The Department of Defense (DOD) Inspector General (IG) issued his report on the investigation into assertions by a former United Launch Alliance (ULA) executive that, among other things, implied that DOD had tried to slant an acquisition towards ULA. The IG concluded there was no wrong doing on the part of DOD.
The IG is appointed by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate in accordance with the Inspector General Act of 1978. Glenn Fine is DOD's Acting IG.
In March 2016, Brett Tobey, then ULA's Engineering Vice President, spoke to a group of students at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He made a number of frank statements about ULA's competition with SpaceX and the competition between Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne on building an engine for ULA's new Vulcan rocket. ULA President Tory Bruno disavowed the statements and Tobey resigned.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), however, demanded an investigation into whether Tobey's statements had substance.
One statement in particular that raised eyebrows was that the Air Force had tilted a launch service solicitation in ULA's direction and was upset that ULA subsequently decided not to bid on that contract (for a GPS III launch). The implication was that the government acquisition process was not being followed appropriately. Other statements concerned the long-running debate over how many Russian RD-180 engines ULA would be allowed to obtain for its Atlas V rockets, a topic on which McCain had strong views. (It since has been resolved.)
In its December 8 report, the DOD IG concluded there was no wrongdoing on the part of DOD.
It investigated four of Tobey's assertions:
The IG noted that Tobey "recanted" these assertions during its investigation and "characterized [them] as postulation." It quotes Tobey as saying "The tone of my presentation was that of more of an op-ed than even a rational argument or article" and that because it was a student audience, he decided to provide "drama" and "got into an excessively casual tone of discussion with them." He did not know his remarks were being recorded and would "go viral" and be "quoted in sound bites that make them very damaging to ULA. And for that, I'm very sorry."
After a 7-month investigation, the IG said it found no evidence that ULA improperly transferred rocket engines from NSS to commercial launches, that DOD gave an unfair advantage to ULA over competitors, or that the USD/ATL and the Lockheed Martin CEO had a conversation about silencing McCain. It also found that DOD awarded contracts to ULA "in accordance with DoD and Federal regulations."
The House today passed the new FY2017 Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating through April 28, 2017, but Senate Democrats are threatening to delay -- but not block - a vote in the Senate. If the bill is not cleared by Congress and signed by the President before midnight tomorrow, December 9, some parts of the government will have to shut down.
Only one of the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations bills has been signed into law -- the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) bill. Funding for all other government operations that are part of discretionary spending -- from DOD to NASA to NOAA to a who's who of other agencies -- ends at midnight tomorrow. The new CR, H.R. 2028, Further Continuing and Security Assistance Appropriations, as amended, passed the House 326-96 this afternoon.
With the clock running out, expectations initially were that the Senate would approve it even if there were concerns about its provisions and the process itself. Under Senate procedures, there first must be a vote to allow debate to occur (a cloture vote) after which 30 hours of debate are allowed. That period can be shortened by unanimous consent.
However, Senate Democrats indicated today that they plan to prevent the abbreviated post-cloture debate by objecting to the unanimous consent request. They are demanding an extension of health care benefits for coal miners that otherwise will expire in January. The protest is led by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
H.R. 2028, as passed by the House, includes a four-month extension of the benefits, but Manchin and Brown want a year-long extension. Though narrowly framed, the debate is more broadly over whether President-elect Donald Trump will honor promises to coal miners during his campaign and how Democrats can exert their influence following the election results.
If Democrats hold to their position, the cloture vote would take place on Saturday, and a vote on the bill itself on Sunday. Assuming it passes, that means a partial shutdown of the government would last for two days or less.
The new CR funds most government discretionary activities at their FY2016 levels until the end of April, although exceptions are made for NASA's deep space human exploration program (Space Launch System, Exploration Ground Systems, and Orion) and NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) weather satellites. In both cases, funds may be spent to ensure that the launch dates for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and JPSS-1 do not slip. H.R. 2028, as amended, also provides NASA with $74.7 million to repair damage from Hurricane Matthew.
Tributes from around the world are pouring in for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, who died today at 95. He is the last of the original "Mercury 7" astronauts to pass away -- the end of an era. A Marine, a NASA astronaut, and a four-term U.S. Senator, Glenn is being praised as a quintessential America hero and icon.
Glenn's service to the country began as a Marine pilot in World War II and the Korean War. When the United States began its human spaceflight program, he was one of the "original seven" astronauts chosen for the Mercury program in 1959. Following two suborbital Mercury flights -- Alan Shepard in April 1961 and Virgil "Gus" Grissom in July 1961 -- Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962. His four-orbit flight was fraught with problems, notably when a sensor indicated that his Friendship 7 spacecraft's heatshield was loose and might not protect him during the heat of reentry. The sensor was faulty, not the heatshield, and Glenn safely splashed down after 4 hours and 55 minutes in space.
Glenn's career then turned to politics and he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, a position he held until January 1999. As his Senate career was coming to a close, NASA agreed to fly him into space a second time on a space shuttle mission, STS-95, ostensibly to test how spaceflight conditions affect older individuals. Launched on October 29, 1998, Glenn set a record for the oldest human to fly into space at the age of 77. He was in space for 8 days 22 hours on that flight.
As he was about to launch on his 1962 mission, fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter, serving as capsule communicator (CAPCOM), famously said "Godspeed, John Glenn." That phrase was repeated many times today.
Glenn's death follows that of his six fellow Mercury 7 astronauts: Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Grissom, Walter (Wally) Schirra, Alan Shepherd, and Donald (Deke) Slayton.
President Obama said "The last of America's first astronauts has left us, but propelled by their example we know that our future here on Earth compels us to keep reaching for the heavens. On behalf of a grateful nation, Godspeed, John Glenn."
Many others are paying tribute to Glenn today, including Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who, himself, flew on a space shuttle mission while he was a member of the House of Representatives in 1986. He called Glenn "a first class gentleman and an unabashed patriot."
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (Maj. Gen. USMC, Ret.), said the "entire NASA Family will be forever grateful for his outstanding service, commitment and friendship. Personally, I shall miss him greatly. As a fellow Marine and aviator, he was a mentor, role model, and most importantly, a dear friend."
Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, but the first human to orbit the Earth was the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin, who made one orbit on April 12, 1961.
The House Appropriations Committee released the new Continuing Resolution (CR) tonight that will keep the government operating after Friday, when the existing CR expires. The new CR will fund the government through April 28, 2017. Generally activities are funded at their current (FY2016) levels, but there are a number of exceptions, including for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion exploration programs and NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). Congress must pass and the President must sign the bill before midnight Friday.
Congressional Republicans decided to punt on FY2017 appropriations after the elections gave them control not only of Congress, but the White House as well. By delaying action, the new Trump Administration will have a say in funding for FY2017 as well as FY2018 and beyond.
CRs typically fund activities at their existing levels, but exceptions can be made for ongoing or new programs. In this case, among the new activities are additional funding for the military to fight foreign wars ("Overseas Contingency Operations"), natural disaster relief, funds for communities affected by contaminated drinking water, and funding for the 21st Century CURES Act (medical research and associated activities).
Fourteen ongoing programs were singled out for special treatment ranging from the Ohio Class Submarine Replacement program to the continuation of FAA air travel operations and safety activities to health care benefits for miners.
Included in the 14 is NASA's deep space human exploration program -- SLS, Orion, and associated ground systems. A committee press release says the action was taken "to avoid delays that would increase long-term costs." The bill states that funds for NASA's exploration account "may be apportioned up to the rate of operations necessary to maintain the planned launch capability schedules" for SLS, Exploration Ground Systems, and Orion. The first SLS/Orion launch -- without a crew -- is currently scheduled for no later than November 2018.
Another exception is NOAA's JPSS. That was made to ensure "the continuation of data for weather warnings, including forecasts of extreme weather events." The bill allows that funds for JPSS "may be apportioned up to the rate for operations necessary to maintain the planned launch schedules" for JPSS. Until recently, the launch of JPSS-1 was expected in March 2017, but NOAA's website now states that it will be in the 4th quarter of FY2017.
The House is using the Senate amendment to H.R. 2028, the FY2016 (yes, FY2016) Energy and Water Appropriations Act, as the legislative vehicle for this CR -- formally the Further Continuing and Security Assistance Appropriations Act.
House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), who has long (and fruitlessly) advocated for a return to "regular order" where each of the 12 regular appropriations bills is passed individually in time for the beginning of each new fiscal year, called the new CR "a band aid, but a critical one" that will give the next Congress time to complete the annual appropriations process. This is his last year as chairman of the committee because of a 6-year term limit applied to such positions. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) will chair the committee in the next Congress. Rogers reportedly is hoping to be appointed chairman of the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.
The House Rules Committee will meet tomorrow afternoon at 3:00 pm ET to write the rule for consideration of this bill on the House floor. It could be brought to the floor for a vote anytime thereafter. It then must pass the Senate and be signed into law by President Obama.
Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) President David Melcher laid out his organization's priorities for next year at a luncheon today. Among his top 10 priorities are clearing the way for aerospace and defense exports, resolving the quorum issue at the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank, and repealing the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and its sequester provisions.
Lt. Gen. Melcher (Ret.) took the reins of AIA after a 32-year career in the Army and 7 years in industry. After leaving the Army in 2008, he joined ITT Corporation and became the first chief executive of Excelis after it was spun off from ITT in 2011. He remained there through its acquisition by Harris Corporation in May 2015. A month later he became President and CEO of AIA, succeeding Marion Blakey, who is now head of Rolls Royce North America.
Melcher said that he met with Donald Trump during the campaign to discuss AIA's position papers on key issues for the next President (as well as with senior advisers to the Clinton campaign). He said the President-elect "listened carefully to our views on the need to beef up investments in defense capabilities and to spur high tech innovation." Melcher praised Trump's pick of Gen. James Mattis (Ret.) as his nominee for Secretary of Defense: "I count General Mattis as a friend and I think he's an outstanding choice."
The bulk of Melcher's comments were directed toward the aerospace and defense industries broadly, rather than specific agencies or programs. Exports were a major theme.
AIA is seeking a resolution to the stalemate over the Export-Import Bank. AIA was one of the leaders in getting Congress to reauthorize the bank, but has been unable to convince the Senate to confirm new members of its Board. The Bank should have five Board members and three are required as a quorum to approve loans of more than $10 million. There are only two Board members now. Senators who oppose the Bank are blocking new nominees, hamstringing what it can do.
He also called on the government to ease barriers to exports of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) created by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). He asserts that the United States could lose its leadership "in a potential $80 billion market."
A "21st Century Commercial Space Competitiveness Strategy" that encourages "commercial space export opportunities" that will "ensure we have a healthy space industrial base" is also needed, he said.
Getting rid of the 2011 BCA and its spending caps is another priority. "BCA has set a spending level far below what's required to secure our nation and our allies.... Let's fund our military based on clear eyed assessments of where power and presence are necessary, and not tie this to arbitrary limits."
Melcher laid out four "megatrends" identified by senior representatives of AIA member companies -- a veritable who's who of the U.S. aerospace industry ranging from Aerojet Rocketdyne to Virgin Galactic (but with notable exceptions like SpaceX and Blue Origin). These megatrends are "strong headwinds that affect policy making in Washington" and need attention: the state of deficit politics, smart regulations, U.S. leadership in a global economy, and transition to a digital global economy.
The United States needs to "make a conscious decision to invest in national security, civil space, aeronautics and 21st century air transportation systems" if it wants to be innovative, job-creating, and inspirational.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of December 5-9, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
This is make or break time for Congress to pass an appropriations bill or bills to keep the government operating past Friday. The existing Continuing Resolution (CR), which funds agencies at their current (FY2016) levels, expires at midnight December 9. The House has no votes scheduled for Friday, so it apparently expects to complete action earlier in the week. The Senate schedule has not been announced.
The election put Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House so congressional leaders have decided to wait until the Trump Administration is in place to make final FY2017 appropriations decisions. However, some key Republicans are insisting that Congress pass a full-year appropriations bill for DOD to match the funding levels recommended in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). That bill just passed the House on Friday and is expected to pass the Senate early this coming week. Congress can pass a full-year FY2017 appropriations bill for DOD and an extension of the CR for other agencies or any other combination it chooses, but it must do something by Friday or some parts of the government will have to close down. The existing CR provided full-year funding for activities in the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) bill, so perhaps Congress will do the same for defense. It really is up in the air at this moment. All the other agencies, including NASA and NOAA, likely will end up with another CR. There is some debate as to whether to extend it through either March or April, with the later date advocated by the Senate which expects to be busy holding hearings and votes on Trump cabinet nominees in the early months of next year.
Congress might also pass a new authorization bill for NASA this week. The 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in September and negotiations are ongoing with the House on a final bill. The latest rumors are that it could reach the Senate floor for consideration early this week, but it still would have to pass the House and time is getting short. Nonetheless, it is quite common for Congress to pass a flurry of legislation in its closing days. Congresses last for 2 years and at the end all pending legislation is dead. The next Congress must begin again, with its new set of Members, so there is an advantage to completing work before the 114th Congress ends and the 115th begins.
One bill that made it through the Senate last week and might be voted on in the House this week -- although it is not on the schedule yet -- is the Weather Forecasting and Research Innovation Act. The version that passed the Senate is a compromise with the House and incorporates provisions of H.R. 1561, which passed the House in 2015, S. 1331, which cleared the Senate Commerce Committee in 2015, and two other bills (S. 1573 and H.R. 34). Among many other things, it reforms NOAA's satellite procurement efforts.
The House is scheduled to consider the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Act (H.R. 2726, as amended) tomorrow under suspension of the rules. The Apollo 1 Memorial Act is not on the list as of today, but the schedule notes that additional bills will be added to the suspension calendar (which is used for relatively non-controversial bills that are expected to easily win two-thirds of the votes and therefore get expedited consideration).
So it will be a very busy week just with congressional activity, but there are many other interesting events, too. For brevity's sake, we will mention only one -- Wednesday's Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law in Washington, DC. This is the 11th Galloway symposium and they just keep getting better every year. It's free, but seating is limited so pre-registration is REQUIRED. Bob Walker, a former congressman who was a space policy adviser to the Trump campaign and presumably is still advising the transition effort (though not officially part of the "landing party" at NASA), and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), are both on the agenda, plus panels on topical space law issues and a luncheon speech on the "Next 50 Years of the Outer Space Treaty," which turns 50 next year.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for additions that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Tuesday, December 5-6
Tuesday, December 6
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 6-7
Wednesday, December 7
Wednesday-Thursday, December 7-8
Wednesday-Friday, December 7-9
Friday, December 9
Next month, the United States will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the loss of the Apollo 1 crew when fire erupted in their Apollo capsule during a pre-launch test. More than a dozen House members led by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) want to pass legislation before Congress adjourns to establish a memorial to the crew at Arlington National Cemetery. Memorials already exist for the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews who perished in 1986 and 2003, but not for Apollo 1. The Apollo 1 Memorial Act would fix that.
In a "dear colleague" letter yesterday, Johnson, the top Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chair of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, urged colleagues to join in co-sponsoring the bill, H.R. 6147. It currently has 14 (11 Democrats, 3 Republicans) co-sponsors.
On January 27, 1967, the United States suffered its first space tragedy when Lt. Col. Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Lt. Col. Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died of asphyxiation after fire broke out in their Apollo Command Module during a test prior to a planned February 21 launch. The capsule was filled with 100 percent oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure. The cause of the fire is thought to have been a spark from an electrical wire although the investigation could not conclusively identify the ignition source. The capsule had been designed for the hatch to swing inward. With the pressure inside the capsule greater than that outside, it was impossible for the crew to open it quickly and with fire spreading explosively in 100 percent oxygen, there was little time. Many changes were made to the design of the Apollo capsule and to test procedures afterwards.
The mission was designated Apollo 204 or Apollo-Saturn 204 (AS-204), but since Grissom, White and Chaffee would have been the first Apollo crew, it was redesignated Apollo 1 in their honor.
All three men were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Grissom and Chaffee are buried at Arlington Cemetery; White is buried at West Point Cemetery.
H.R. 6147 directs the Secretary of the Army to construct a memorial marker to the Apollo 1 crew at an "appropriate place" in the cemetery and allocates $500,000 of money appropriated to the Army for operations and maintenance in FY2017 for that purpose. It also allows the Administrator of NASA to accept donations for the memorial and transfer the money to the Army. The Army oversees Arlington Cemetery.
Time is running short for the 114th Congress to pass any legislation, but Johnson and Miller hope it can be accomplished nonetheless, saying "it is surprising that we do not have a memorial at Arlington Cemetery to honor the lives of the crew of Apollo 1 as was done for the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews. H.R. 6147 ... would redress that unfortunate omission."
Russia's Progress MS-04 robotic cargo spacecraft, which was headed to the International Space Station (ISS), failed to reach orbit today. An anomaly occurred during the burn of the rocket's third stage. An investigation is underway. Russia launches approximately four Progress missions to ISS every year in addition to cargo delivered by U.S. and Japanese spacecraft. The next cargo mission, Japan's HTV6, is scheduled for launch next week.
Progress MS-04 launched on time at 9:51 am EST (8:51 pm local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan) on a Soyuz-U rocket. NASA refers to this as Progress 65.
Russia's space state corporation Roscosmos said a contingency occurred 382 seconds later at an altitude of 190 kilometers. At that point, the Soyuz rocket's third stage should still have been firing.
Roscosmos said a state commission is beginning an investigation into what went wrong.
NASA notified astronaut Shane Kimbrough aboard the ISS about the failure, saying that there were indications of "third stage sep occurring a few minutes early and we haven't had any communications with Progress at all." "Third stage sep" refers to separation between the rocket's third stage and the spacecraft. NASA posted the audio of its communication with Kimbrough on its ISS blog.
The spacecraft was loaded with 2.6 tons of food, scientific equipment, spare parts, oxygen, water, and propellant to refill tanks for the engines on ISS that periodically raise the space station's orbit to compensate for atmospheric drag. NASA said in a press release that U.S. supplies on board were spare parts for the environmental control and life support system, research hardware, crew supplies and clothing, "all of which are replaceable" and not critical for the U.S. Operating Segment (USOS).
Progress MS is the latest variant of Russia's venerable robotic spacecraft that has been used to deliver food, fuel and other supplies to space station crews since the 1970s. Its first use was in 1978 delivering fuel to the Soviet Union's Salyut 6 space station, the first space station to have two docking ports, thereby enabling such resupply missions and extended duration spaceflights. It has been through several upgrades over the decades (Progress, Progress M, Progress M_M and now Progress MS). The first flight of this variant, Progress MS-01, took place just about a year ago on December 21, 2015. (NASA refers to Progress missions sequentially based on when they began supplying ISS. Hence they call today's mission Progress 65 because it is the 65th Progress mission to the ISS.)
The Soyuz-U rocket also has been in use for a long time -- since 1973. Russia is phasing it out and the newer Soyuz-2 is intended to replace it for these missions. However, a Soyuz-2.1a launch of a Progress spacecraft (Progress M-27M) failed in April 2015. Russia's investigation concluded it was due to a "design peculiarity in the joint use of the spaceship and the rocket related to frequency-dynamic characteristics of the linkage between the spaceship and the rocket's third stage." In that case, the spacecraft reached orbit (along with the third stage), but was out of control and in the wrong orbit. It soon reentered.
Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan's Space Report tweeted today about the ironic difference in the Progress M-27M and Progress MS-04 failures:
Anatoly Zak, editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com, tweeted that residents of the Tuva Region reported an explosion and shaking at the time of the anomaly.
Roscosmos said most of the fragments burned up in the atmosphere, while Russia's official news agency, TASS, reported that debris may have fallen 60-80 kilometers west of Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic. The area, in southern Siberia, is rugged and mountainous according to Russian media reports.
The chairmen of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and its Space Subcommittee want NASA to provide documentation to underpin recent agency statements implying that its scientific advisors now support the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The controversial Obama Administration project has received little support, including from the scientists who study asteroids. A November NASA update to an ARM website suggests they have changed their minds, however.
In 2010, President Obama canceled the Bush Administration's Constellation program to return humans to the surface of the Moon and someday send them to Mars. He stated that we had already been to the Moon's surface and there was no need to go back. Instead, he directed NASA to focus on sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a step towards putting humans in orbit around Mars in the 2030s. Over time, that evolved into ARM, where a robotic spacecraft will be sent to an asteroid, pluck a boulder from its surface, and move the boulder to lunar orbit. Once there, astronauts will visit it and collect a sample for return to Earth.
ARM has two components: the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) -- the robotic spacecraft that will collect and relocate the boulder, and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) -- sending astronauts to obtain a sample. NASA initially estimated the cost of ARRM at $1.25 billion. No cost estimate has been provided for ARCM. NASA argues that ARRM and ARCM will demonstrate technologies needed to achieve the long term goal of sending humans to Mars such as high power solar electric propulsion (SEP) and cites other potential benefits such as ARRM demonstrating a "gravity tractor" technique to change an asteroid's trajectory.
Scientists who study asteroids and other small bodies in the solar system provide input to NASA through the agency's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG). They were not consulted prior to announcement of the mission by the White House. Later, NASA officials responsible for executing ARM engaged with SBAG to explain the mission and obtain input on how best to design it to further scientific goals as well as meet human spaceflight objectives.
On November 16, NASA posted an update to one of its ARM websites announcing release of a report from an SBAG Special Action Team (SAT) that NASA said "confirms scientific benefits" of the mission. (The posting looks like a press release, but was not formally issued as a NASA news release.) The posting said the SAT compared ARM requirements to internationally developed Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) for human missions into deep space and science objectives identified in the National Academies' most recent Decadal Survey for planetary science. The SAT concluded that ARM could close 18 small body SKGs and address 15 questions that support specific objectives in the Decadal Survey, although some of that is "contingent upon additional instruments or payloads on the robotic segment of ARM or additional crew time than is currently baselined for the crew segment of ARM." The posting indisputably conveys the impression that SBAG, or at least the members of the SAT are warming up to ARM after years of skepticism.
Today, House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) called on NASA to provide the committee with documents to help it "better understand the genesis and intent" of the SAT report and the "press release."
In a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Smith and Babin requested all documents associated with the SAT report and the press release that underpin the implication that the agency's scientific advisors now support ARM.
"Contrary to the assertions made in the press release, numerous advisory bodies have questioned the merits of the President's ARM mission. The NASA Advisory Council, the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), and the National Research Council have all raised concerns with the mission," Smith and Babin said. They argue that as the Trump Administration takes office "it would benefit from clear guidance from both NASA and its advisory bodies." The 6-page letter (plus an attachment) details comments from those advisory groups since 2013 expressing reservations about the mission.
ARM passed its Key Decision Point B (KDP-B) review this summer, allowing it to enter the preliminary design and technology completion phase. ARM Program Director Michele Gates revealed at the time that the cost for ARRM had grown from $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion, excluding launch and operations costs. She said NASA uses $500 million as a placeholder for the launch cost, which would raise the total to $1.9 billion without operations. That is the estimate only at this point in the program. NASA does not confirm a mission's schedule or cost until it passes the next milestone, KDP-C.
One concern is that the costs for ARRM and ARCM will grow to such an extent that they will interfere with other science or human exploration missions. While there is strong support for the development of high power solar electric propulsion, which has many applications, critics argue that it can be developed even if ARM is terminated. Many scientists contend that if the goal is to understand asteroids, collecting samples for return to Earth does not require astronauts as demonstrated by Japanese and NASA robotic missions that are already doing that. Human spaceflight advocates worry that the roughly $2 billion for ARRM could be better spent on other aspects of advancing NASA's Journey to Mars, such as building habitats.
For those and other reasons, ARM has garnered little support either in Congress or the space community.
Still, Congress has not prohibited NASA from spending money on it, at least as of now. The House Appropriations Committee's FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which includes NASA, would prohibit NASA from spending any money for planning robotic or crewed missions to asteroids, but the bill has not passed the House yet. Its Senate counterpart is silent with regard to ARM. A draft version of a FY2017 NASA authorization bill also does not require that ARM be terminated. Instead, NASA would have to submit an analysis of alternatives on how to demonstrate technologies needed for human missions to Mars.
Events of Interest