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NAC Wants Independent Cost and Technical Estimate of ARM Before Downselect

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Jul-2014
Updated: 31-Jul-2014 10:52 PM

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) wants NASA to obtain an independent cost and technical estimate of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) before it chooses – “downselects” – between  two options for implementing that mission.  NASA currently plans to wait until after the decision is made.  It is one of three recommendations and one finding NAC is making to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about the human spaceflight program.

NAC met for a second day today (July 31) at NASA’s Langley Research Center.  Among its tasks was finalizing findings and recommendations to send to Bolden on which debate began yesterday.  It adopted findings and recommendations in several areas, but those affecting the human spaceflight program were the most contentious.

NAC’s purpose is to advise the NASA Administrator on major issues affecting the agency and NAC Chairman Steve Squyres explained at the beginning of the meeting yesterday that he and Bolden have restructured NAC over the past several months to make it more effective in doing that.  He wants a more proactive Council that focuses on the key issues facing NASA and it is clear that the future of the human spaceflight program is at the top of the list.

NAC recommendations follow a standard format: state the recommendation, explain the reasons for it, and identify the consequences of not acting on it.  All quotes below are from the final drafts of the recommendations as discussed today in public session.  Minor changes could still be made before they are submitted to Bolden.

Recommendation: Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)

NAC is worried that, as currently defined, ARM may pose an unacceptable cost and technical risk. Tom Young and Scott Hubbard were particularly involved in formulating this recommendation.

ARM is divided into three elements:  

  • identifying targets,
  • sending a robotic probe to capture and redirect an asteroid or part of one into lunar orbit, and
  • sending a crew to get a sample once it’s in lunar orbit.

It is the second that particularly troubles NAC in terms of cost and technical feasibility.  In fact, NAC concludes that the first and third elements have merit even if the second element does not take place.

NASA is studying two options for the second element: Option A, capturing an entire, small asteroid; or Option B, going to a larger asteroid and plucking a boulder from its surface.

NAC recommends that NASA conduct an independent cost and technical assessment before it chooses between the two options.  The possible outcome is choosing Option A, Option B, or neither.  It also wants NASA to clearly state in advance what the cost and technical criteria are for implementing the mission including affordability within projected budgets.

The Council also states that ARM is not a substitute for sending astronauts to an asteroid in its native orbit, which it sees as a logical step towards sending humans to Mars.   In 2010, President Obama directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, not to bring an asteroid to the astronauts.  In 2013, the White House proposed ARM instead, but some view ARM as insufficient to demonstrate the technical and human factors aspects of a long duration space mission far from Earth, which they believe is needed before making an even longer trip to Mars.

The consequences of not acting on its recommendation, NAC says, is the potential that a mission with significant cost and technical risk could be implemented without fully understanding the potential for cost overruns or schedule slips.

Recommendation: Human Spaceflight Mismatch -- Aspirations Versus Budget

Yesterday and at NAC’s last meeting, several members expressed concern that although the overall human spaceflight strategy NASA is developing sounds reasonable, it is not executable within expected budgets.  The strategy includes ARM, but extends out to human trips to Mars.  Squyres was the leading force on this recommendation.  He wanted stronger wording than the group as a whole was willing to adopt, but the consensus version is still quite direct.

“The mismatch between NASA’s aspirations for human spaceflight and its budget for human spaceflight is the most serious problem facing the agency,” NAC said in the final draft adopted today.

It wants NASA to carefully consider what steps need to be taken in the years ahead to meet the goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s -- the goal that is articulated in the U.S. National Space Policy -- with a realistic budget.   The agency should identify the minimum path of what is absolutely required to meet that goal and compare it with a human spaceflight budget that grows only at the rate of inflation.  NAC anticipates there will be a shortfall and wants NASA to explain how it will address that gap.

The Council said that it agrees with the recent Pathways to Exploration report from the National Research Council (NRC) that sending humans to Mars is the appropriate “horizon goal,” but also agrees with the NRC that under currently projected budgets, that goal will never be achieved.  NAC asserts that there are only four ways to fix the mismatch:  increase NASA’s budget, remove content from NASA’s portfolio, offset costs by new efficiencies and/or contributions from outside partners, or adopt a different goal.

The consequences of not acting on the recommendation are that the agency “runs the risk of squandering precious national resources on a laudable but unachievable goal.”

NAC requests a briefing from NASA at its next meeting and subsequent meetings on how it is implementing this recommendation. 

Recommendation:  SLS Launch Rate

The third human spaceflight recommendation addressed what many NAC members consider the unacceptably low launch rate now planned for the Space Launch System (SLS) of one launch every two years.  Squyres also has been a leader in raising awareness of this issue, but many other NAC members clearly agree.

NAC warned that the rate is “less than optimal for maintenance of the supplier base, and the ability of the engineering, production, launch and operations teams to make appropriate risk decisions in a timely fashion.”   NASA therefore should conduct a trade study to determine a minimum launch rate for SLS with respect to cost, safety, mission success, and performance.

Finding:  Endorsement of Some Aspects of the Human Spaceflight Strategy

While those three recommendations convey criticism of NASA’s plans, that is not to say the Council found nothing positive about NASA’s efforts.  It also adopted a finding that says, despite its concerns, it endorses the following aspects of the human spaceflight strategy:

  • Mars as the “horizon goal” for human spaceflight
  • Intermediate missions to cis-lunar space that allow development of systems that can later be used for more distant exploration (bearing in mind its concerns about ARM)
  • An approach that emphasizes affordability and allows re-use of system components
  • Early investment in enabling technologies
  • Involvement of external partners (international and commercial) to reduce the total amount of U.S. government funding

Ken Bowersox, who chairs NAC’s human exploration and operations committee, and Wayne Hale were particularly intent on ensuring that the Council tells NASA what it is doing right, not only the negatives.

Next Steps: A NAC Press Release?

Traditionally, NAC findings and recommendations are sent to the NASA Administrator in a letter from the NAC Chair.  Eventually the Administrator responds and the exchange is posted on the NAC website and they receive little notice.

Today, NAC member Miles O’Brien suggested that NAC issue a press release to raise awareness of these issues.   The other NAC members, including Squyres, were enthusiastic about the idea.  It apparently would be a precedent-setting event.  Squyres seemed to feel it is in keeping with the goal he and Bolden share to make NAC more effective.

Squyres says he will try to have a press release issued after he formally transmits all of NAC’s findings and recommendations to Bolden in about two weeks.

NAC's next meeting is scheduled for December 8-9, 2014 at Stennis Space Center.


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