Bolden's Confusing Asteroid Mission Rationale (Revised)

Leading the end of one space era, and the beginning of another, Washington Post

"And this is subtle. I have this discussion with my science friends all the time and those who are purist. The president said by 2025 we should send humans to an asteroid. What he meant was, you should send humans to somewhere between Mars and Saturn, because that's where the dominant asteroids in the asteroid belt are. But no, he didn't say that. He said: humans to an asteroid."

Keith's note: Unless he is misquoted, Bolden seems to be a little confused. Bolden also neglects to mention that there is a big difference between sending humans to regions of the solar system where asteroids are located as a stepping stone toward sending humans to Mars -- and bringing the asteroid to Earth so we do not have to go as far to visit it. This defeats the original intent of sending humans greater distances during longer missions and replaces that intent with placing a small rock in orbit around a place we've already visited. We're really not much closer to sending humans to Mars - and the President never said "bring the asteroid back to humans" either. That idea bubbled up on the 9th floor and at OSTP.

To be blunt, there is no compelling rationale for the Asteroid Redirect & Return Mission (ARRM). There never has been. Based on the way that Charlie Bolden continually stumbles through his conflicting explanation of what the mission is and is not, there never will be a clear reason why it needs to be done.

This is what the President actually said in 2010: "Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we'll start -- we'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it."

With regard to the scientific value of the ARRM, the Small Bodies Assessment Group sees little scientific value: "While the SBAG committee finds that there is great scientific value in sample return missions from asteroids such as OSIRIS-Rex, ARRM has been defined as not being a science mission, nor is it a cost effective way to address science goals achievable through sample return. Candidate ARRM targets are limited and not well identified or characterized. Robotic sample return missions can return higher science value samples by selecting from a larger population of asteroids, and can be accomplished at significantly less cost (as evidenced by the OSIRIS-REx mission). Support of ARRM with planetary science resources is not appropriate."

Charlie Bolden recently agreed (via SpaceReview) : "[Bolden] also deemphasized the role of science in the proposed mission to redirect an asteroid into a "distant retrograde" lunar orbit to then be visited by a crewed Orion spacecraft. "We should not be saying that this is going to benefit science. It is not a science mission," he said. He said that the mission would accomplish some science, including by astronauts bringing back samples of the asteroid, "but it should not be characterized, or we should not try to characterize it, as a major science initiative." What the asteroid mission will do for planetary science, he concluded, was "peanuts."

Then there is doubt on the part of the NASA Inspector General as to whether Orion and the necessary additional payload hardware will even be ready to support this mission: "... even after the MPCV is fully developed and ready to transport crew, NASA will continue to face significant challenges concerning the long-term sustainability of its human exploration program. For example, unless the Agency begins a program to develop landers and surface systems, NASA astronauts will be limited to orbital missions using the MPCV. Under the current budget environment, it appears unlikely that NASA will obtain significant funding to begin development of additional exploration hardware, thereby delaying such development into the 2020s."

In other words, the value to demonstrating deep space human capabilities will be limited as will the scientific return - and the hardware to send people on the mission might not be ready. But wait: maybe there is a bigger issue here: learning how to avoid asteroid impacts with Earth. Guess again (via SpaceReview): "I don't like saying we're going to save the planet, for example," Bolden said in a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) on July 31 in Washington. "At some point, that may be done, but that's not--we're not in a position that we should be saying, 'Fund the asteroid initiative and we're going to save the planet.'"

So ... why does NASA want to do this mission? Why not just send a robot and focus on sending people to Mars by sending people to Mars?

As for the thrust of the Washington Post article i.e. Charlie Bolden's management style, there is one critical thing missing from Bolden's portfolio: True leadership. There is also the inability on Bolden's part to make the tough decisions the agency needs to make - or explaining the decisions he has made (i.e. this asteroid thing). To his credit, Bolden admits that he is lacking a crucial aspect of leadership: "I'm not a blunt person by any stretch of the imagination. I'm probably too easy and I could be more direct, but I just never learned how to do that. I find that very difficult."

It is a little hard to lead a large organization when you cannot directly confront the things that need to be confronted or explain the reasons why you are doing things. Indeed, Bolden tends to follow rather than lead - and he often rambles when he should be direct.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on August 16, 2013 10:54 AM.

OIG Cites Multiple Orion/MPCV Delays was the previous entry in this blog.

NASA Selects Suborbital Proposals is the next entry in this blog.

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