The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

ARM at asteroid
NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission has been targeted for cancellation by the White House, but Congress will have the final word. (credit: NASA)

A farewell to ARM?

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Its impending demise can hardly be considered surprising. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) has, since its introduction in 2013, struggled to win support, facing skepticism from members of Congress, scientists, and others who were skeptical about how a mission to retrieve a boulder from a near Earth asteroid to be visited by astronauts in cislunar space would further long-term plans for human missions to Mars. Many figured that a change in administrations would mean an end to ARM.

“We remain committed to the next human missions to deep space, but we will not pursue the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) with this budget,” Lightfoot said.

And that ending is now beginning. The Trump Administration released its budget “blueprint” document last Thursday, an outline of the overall fiscal year 2018 budget that will be released in early May. The so-called “skinny budget” offered scant details about each agency, providing only overall budget figures and a few specific about programs that would, or would not, be supported by it.

The two pages about NASA in that document confirmed that speculation about ARM in a single sentence. “To accommodate increasing development costs, the Budget cancels the multi-billion-dollar Asteroid Redirect Mission,” the document stated. The increasing development costs it referred to were for NASA’s key exploration programs: Orion, Space Launch System, and associated ground systems.

Robert Lightfoot, who has served as acting NASA administrator for the last two months, acknowledged the plans to end ARM in a statement issued shortly after the release of the budget blueprint. “We remain committed to the next human missions to deep space, but we will not pursue the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) with this budget,” he said.

However, he said that some of its key technologies, like the solar electric propulsion (SEP) system that ARM’s robotic spacecraft would use, would live on for use in other missions. “We will continue the solar electric propulsion efforts benefitting from those developments for future in space transportation initiatives,” he said. “I have had personal involvement with this team and their progress for the past few years, and am I extremely proud of their efforts to advance this mission.”

This puts ARM in sort of a limbo. The message from the administration is clear, in one respect: they don’t want to continue work on ARM. Yet, the mission is not yet formally cancelled, and work continues on ARM at NASA today, funded under a continuing resolution (CR), a stopgap spending bill that funds NASA programs at 2016 levels through late next month.

Microsymposium 58, a workshop over the week weekend in advance of this week’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference outside Houston, featured a talk by Paul Abell, ARM deputy mission investigator at the Johnson Space Center. Abell gave a presentation about ARM Saturday that offered no hint of the planned cancellation announced just two days earlier.

Understandably, the first question after his talk asked, albeit circuitously, about plans by the administration to cancel ARM. Abell said that, for now, it’s business as usual for ARM.

“We’re in a continuing resolution right now, and we’ve got direction from Congress to proceed,” he said, saying he was taking a “wait and see” approach to the budget deliberations. “We’re very aware, obviously, of the budget and some of the indications that we’re getting.”

Congress could decide not to allocate any funding for ARM should it finalize a 2017 spending bill in the next several weeks, making plans to cancel it in the 2018 budget proposal moot.

Nonetheless, decisions are coming soon about ARM. In the next few months, NASA is scheduled to award a contract for the bus for the ARM robotic spacecraft, as well as identify potential hosted payloads that could fly on that spacecraft and scientists who will serve as members of the “investigation team” for the mission, similar to a participating scientist program on a typical science mission.

NASA has already pushed back those awards. At a January meeting of the Small Bodies Assessment Group in Tucson, Arizona, Michele Gates, program director for ARM at NASA Headquarters, said the award of the bus contract was being delayed from March to May, and the hosted payload and investigation seam selections—part of the ARM Umbrella for Partnerships, or ARM-UP—from April to June.

Gates said at the January meeting that the slip was due to the lack of a final 2017 budget for NASA. “As you know, we’ve had an extended CR until April 28, so we’ve had to move our checkpoints” for those awards, she said. That delay would move the awards until after Congress passed a final appropriations bill or instead simply extended the CR for the rest of the fiscal year.

It’s not clear now whether NASA will ever award those contracts. NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said last week it was “premature” to say of those awards will now be made or not. “We expect additional details when the full budget is released in May,” he said.

By then, ARM’s fate could be sealed. Congress could decide not to allocate any funding for ARM should it finalize a 2017 spending bill in the next several weeks, making plans to cancel it in the 2018 budget proposal moot.

There’s also the question of the rationale for cancelling ARM: saving money to put towards other exploration programs. NASA, in its fiscal year 2017 budget request, put about $217 million towards the various aspects of ARM. Of that, $67 million was allocated to solar electric propulsion work, which Lightfoot said would continue. Another $50 million would go towards near Earth object search efforts, which NASA has said would also continue. Thus, more than half of ARM’s spending in 2017 would be continued for other purposes even if ARM itself is cancelled in 2017.

“The budget process is very long and convoluted,” Abell said. “This is one step in the process.”

Those programs would also continue in 2018, limiting the money that would saved from ARM to go towards SLS, Orion and ground systems. The budget blueprint stated that $3.7 billion would be provided for continued work on those programs, about the same as NASA received in 2016 for them. There may be good reasons for cancelling ARM, but saving money to support exploration programs isn’t one of them.

Of course, Congress could decide to fund ARM for 2017, and even for 2018, too: there’s a long history of Congress rejecting proposals in budget requests to end specific programs. In a speech in Washington last month, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, didn’t take a strong line for or against ARM.

“Can’t say for sure. Don’t know,” he said when asked if he felt ARM would continue. “There are vital technologies, very important technologies, that are a part of that mission,” which he said included the solar electric propulsion system that will continue even if ARM is cancelled, as well as rendezvous systems.

“The budget process is very long and convoluted,” Abell said at this weekend’s symposium. “This is one step in the process.” That long and convoluted process could ultimately spare ARM, or merely stretch out its demise.