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NASA, Congress in political food fight over asteroids vs. Mars direction

Asteroid near Earth
Asteroid near Earth
NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and House Science Committee Chair Rep. Lamar Smith, R-TX are having a fight over the first direction to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, according to an April 3, 2014 post on the Space Politics blog. Bolden, following the Obama administration line, favors the asteroid redirect mission. Smith would like to send to astronauts of a flyby mission around Venus and Mars in the early 2020s. Bolden trashed the interplanetary mission as not being inspiring and not helpful toward the eventual goal of a Mars landing in the 2030s. Smith shot back that Bolden was misrepresenting the flyby mission.

NASA Watch’s Keith Cowing wishes a plague on both their houses.

“ARM is not without its fiscal problems and fundamental flaws. If the whole idea of ARM is to give Orion/SLS system a test in deep space then they should actually send a crew *to* an asteroid IN DEEP SPACE. Grabbing an asteroid and then bringing it back to a location close to Earth via robot such that Orion can visit it totally undermines the purpose of a deep space test. It’s like lowering a basketball hoop to make it easier for you to sink the ball. Your test now becomes a stunt. It would be vastly simpler and less expensive to send a robotic mission to characterize the target asteroid - if asteroid characterization was the main goal.

“If a true test of Orion/SLS systems in a risky environment - for a first flight - was the goal, then NASA should do just that. But to suggest that a Mars Flyby is a good way to do this test is to run in the exact opposite direction - for a first mission. Operating much closer to Earth ARM has the virtue of providing a contingency return if any critical systems fail on their first flight. Mars Flyby commits to everything with no way to abort. The crew is along for a 500+ day ride no matter what.

“So ARM is too wimpy and Mars Flyby is too risky. How do we test Orion/SLS? And oh yes, everyone is waving their arms as to whether either mission ‘helps us get to Mars’. Well, if you have already decided that Orion/SLS is the only (preferred) way you want to send humans to Mars then ANY flight has to provide some value. Of course some missions provide more bang for the buck than others. So people saying that it doesn't help us get to Mars are simply playing politics with their preferred mission. “

Cowing went on to put his finger on the main problem with uncommon pithiness. “Here's the problem: NASA has no firm plan, goals, destinations, and it doesn't even have the slightest hint of any evidence that a budget significant enough to make Mars exploration possible is in the cards.”

It should be noted that NASA used to have a firm plan and a destination. Under the now defunct Constellation program it was to return to the moon by 2020. But former President Bush did not fund his own proposal adequately and President Obama blew it up in 2010, with the dolorous consequences that have occurred ever since.