Today's bit of bizarre speculation about space attempts to bind three unlikely themes.
- NASA's recently announced Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM)
- The Constellation Program of the last administration, aimed at exploring the Moon (and later Mars)
- Humans-to-Mars, the ultimate goal for human spaceflight at NASA over the past 10+ years
These seem like separate projects at NASA. ARM was originally announced as a precursor mission to the manned exploration of an asteroid. The current administration canceled the Constellation lunar exploration program pretty much because it was the darling of the previous administration. Both were sold as vital prerequisites for sending human explorers to Mars, despite the fact that no one has successfully articulated exactly why it's so important to go to the Moon or an asteroid before you go to Mars.
Starting at the finish line: Mars
OK, let's take a slight detour on our detour... and talk about Mars. When it comes to sending human explorers to Mars, we Martians currently come in two flavors: "dirty" and "baked."
"Dirty" Martians believe you should just land people on Mars and let them get dirt on their boots right away. Decades of successful rover missions have answered the most important up-front questions about resources for living on the surface. An initial base can be assembled by robots tele-operated from Earth, ala a mission plan like Mars One... so why wait?
"Baked" Martians, on the other hand, believe we should send people to the Martian moon Phobos first. These astronauts would hang out at Phobos for years, enabling more decades of robotic surface exploration and making an eventual surface base even safer - or its initial construction even easier through local tele-robotics.
To date, the "dirty" Martians probably outnumber the "baked" Martians by a ten-to-one margin. It's hard for a "baked" Martian to argue for the safety of landing on Phobos first when landing on Phobos itself is such a dangerous endeavor. Astronauts wouldn't actually "land on Phobos" anyway... it's more accurate to say they would dock with Phobos due to that moon's low gravity.
After docking, astronauts would immediately dig underground (underregolith?) somehow to protect themselves from the harsh radiation environment on the surface (hence the moniker "baked Martian"). They would most likely have to deal with harsh temperature extremes, landslides, uneven porosity, uneven minerology and other dangers of living and working in this harsh, asteroid-like environment.
Next stop, Earth's Moon
Now let's consider the insiders at NASA who put years of effort into the Constellation program for exploring Earth's moon. They're still a powerful force within NASA, and they know that some future administration could swing the pendulum back to "Moon before Mars." Their army of public supporters constantly seek new ways to develop and articulate a Moon-first vision.
Lunar exploration and settlements offer an exciting vision of the future on their own. The main difficulties and conflicts have always arisen when supporters of this vision advocate Moon exploration and settlement as a Mars prerequisite. They have never been able to answer the simple follow-up question: "Why???"
How does ARM tie all this together?
OK, all the pieces for a new and highly speculative theory are now in place. Mars remains the ultimate destination, but now we have this ARM thingie. Before visiting an asteroid with human explorers, folks at NASA now propose moving the (very small) asteroid into a stable lunar orbit first. Orbital mechanics gives them some good reasons for doing so, reasons that have already been hashed and rehashed in prior articles and in extensive discussions within the scientific community. We won't go into any of that here... let's just accept these public reasons and look deeper.
Just for fun, let's imagine a conversation between two ficticious higher-ups in NASA HQ's human exploration program a year ago. Phoebe, a young "baked Martian," wants to see human explorers visit an asteroid as a precursor to a Phobos mission. At lunchtime one day she runs into Art, an old college boyfriend who belongs to the Artemis society, a public outreach group advocating lunar settlement.
Phoebe still likes Art but can't bear to be around him much. He's still way too bitter over the way Constellation was canceled. She wishes he could move on and take a more positive view of things.
As they make small talk and eat the daily special in the lunchroom, spaghetti and meatballs, Art slips into a familiar theme.
Art: "I just don't understand why you Mars people allowed the Moon program to be canceled. By now we would have been nearly ready to construct a lunar base. Instead, we're watching the Chinese land rovers on the Moon, and we're no closer to Mars."
His deep scowl put an immediate damper on the mood, as usual.
Phoebe: "It would have helped if the Moon was more Mars-like. Why go to the Moon when it's way harder to live there than on Mars? The two have almost nothing in common." She pressed on, "The Moon is an airless rock with modest resources and no atmosphere to speak of. Mars is a complex world. It even has two moons of its own, which we can use as platforms for exploration."
They've repeated this conversation a dozen times, and it usually ends with Art ranting and leaving. Today, however, he eyes Phoebe's plate and gets an idea. He has already eaten all his meatballs except for one large one. He reaches over with his fork, takes a small meatball off Phoebe's plate, and places it near the big meatball on his own.
Art: "There, now my Moon has a moon too. And it's nearly as good as either of your Martian moons. I can explore the Moon from it, learn to dock with it, and even live on its tiny surface for a while. Are ya happy now?"
Neither say another word. They sit for a while, staring at Art's plate. Then they get up together and go see Charlie Bolden, the NASA administrator. ARM is born.
Wild speculation? Probably. There's no Phoebe or Art at NASA HQ, though many HQ'ers resemble them closely.
Yet the concept of ARM does tie asteroids, the Moon, and Mars together in a new, unique way... at least for the "baked Martians." Perhaps we really can learn more about exploring Mars by creating a few small moons around Earth's moon.
Or perhaps it's all another expensive and time-consuming distraction at NASA, another dangerous effort done in the name of safety. You decide. As for me... I'm hungry.