Asteroid retrieval is costly and uninspiring

NASA is in the business of making the impossible possible. Throughout its history, our space program has set goals that required innovation and technologies yet to be developed, and the results have been astonishing. 

That’s how we put a human on the moon and landed rovers on Mars, all steps at reaching our ultimate goal of someday sending astronauts to our neighboring red planet. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The Russian meteor strike in April and recent close encounters with asteroids passing Earth have been stark reminders of the need to invest in space science. The Science, Space and Technology Committee has held hearings on how best to continue progress in this area. Yet when it comes to the Obama administration’s latest asteroid mission proposal, it has not been able to adequately justify the rationale or budget for such a mission. 

The administration first attempted to sell this plan as supporting NASA priorities without detracting from budgets or long-term goals. While the exact mission cost is still unknown, experts have estimated it could be as much as $2.6 billion. This is a hefty price tag at a time when NASA can barely maintain its current mission priorities. So Congress has the obligation to ensure that any new NASA missions can be justified. 

The proposed asteroid retrieval mission would contribute very little to planetary defense efforts. The size of the target asteroid for this mission is only 7-10 meters in diameter, too small to cause any damage to Earth. Any insight gained by such a mission would have little relevance to protecting against larger “city-killer” asteroids. 

Congress directed NASA in 2005 to identify and track 90 percent of asteroids larger than 140 meters by 2020. Asteroids of this size are ones that could cause significant damage, and NASA still has work to do to accomplish this goal. Asteroids that are 7-10 meters simply disintegrate in our atmosphere. 

Focusing on smaller targets distracts from NASA’s work in characterizing and tracking larger asteroids. In the event that NASA would ever have to redirect a “city-killer,” the techniques for the retrieval mission would have little relevance.

The mission also would have little scientific value because the targeted asteroid would not be what is called a “carbonaceous chondrite.” These are the asteroids that contain water and could potentially retain organic compounds. These are the ones that scientists are interested in learning more about. Along these lines, NASA is already preparing to launch a robotic asteroid sample-return mission, called OSIRIS-Rex in 2016. This is a much cheaper mission than the retrieval mission and will actually provide scientists with new information about the make-up of extraterrestrial bodies. 

Further calling into question the scientific merits of the administration’s proposal, NASA’s own Small Bodies Assessment Group stated in April 2013 that it was “interesting and entertaining, [but] it was not considered to be a serious proposal because of obvious challenges, including the practical difficulty in identifying a target.”

Another angle the administration has argued is that this mission will demonstrate technologies necessary for future exploration. Again, experts in the space community have testified that this is unlikely, calling the mission a detour from human exploration. Witnesses have told the Science Committee that any technologies that may come out of it would not be optimized for long duration or deep space human missions. 

Efforts to accelerate in-space propulsion capabilities will certainly be helpful, but it remains unclear whether those technologies are necessary or realistic for this mission. 

Even though NASA will not conduct a mission formulation review until this summer, it is clear that the proposed asteroid retrieval mission would not require the development of a habitation module, a lander or other technologies that most agree will be necessary for expanding human presence into deep space. 

Two years after the president initially directed NASA to go to an asteroid, the highly respected National Research Council published a study that found “little evidence that a current stated goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program — namely to visit an asteroid by 2025 — has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA’s own workforce, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community.” 

Now, more than ever, NASA must focus and prioritize its resources. Congress has provided stable, bipartisan and consistent support for NASA. Taxpayers entrust NASA with a considerable amount of money — roughly $17 billion per year — and NASA can accomplish a great deal with that amount of money.

The American people demand bold initiatives but understand that such efforts won’t happen overnight. It’s time the administration put forward an inspirational goal worthy of a great space-faring nation. And the asteroid retrieval mission is not it.

Smith has represented Texas’ 21st congressional district in the House of Representatives since 1987. He is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and sits on the Homeland Security and Judiciary committees.