Mars Mission: Obama Wants an Asteroid. Republicans Want the Moon.

Washington is backseat-driving NASA’s trip to Mars.

An artist's concept of what asteroid exploration might look like.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
July 2, 2014, 3:59 p.m.

Wash­ing­ton’s par­tis­an di­vide is spread­ing all the way to space.

Pres­id­ent Obama and many Re­pub­lic­ans agree that NASA should pur­sue a mis­sion to Mars. What they can’t agree on, however, is the best route to get there.

Spe­cific­ally, the parties are di­vided over which space rock to use for a way­po­int on the Mars mis­sion.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans — most fam­ously Newt Gin­grich but also a large pas­sel of House law­makers — see the moon as the most lo­gic­al way­po­int. A lun­ar base, they say, would al­low NASA to test land­ing tech­no­lo­gies and sur­face op­er­a­tions. It would also al­low as­tro­nauts to launch hu­man­kind’s first at­tempts to util­ize ex­tra-Earth re­sources, in­clud­ing ex­tract­ing wa­ter from the moon’s dust.

Obama and NASA’s cur­rent lead­er­ship, however, fa­vor a fur­ther for­ay in­to the fi­nal fron­ti­er: cap­tur­ing, re­dir­ect­ing, and ex­plor­ing an as­ter­oid. To do so, they want the space agency to in­vest in sol­ar propul­sion en­gines, tech­no­logy that is also a pre­requis­ite for a long-dis­tance Mars mis­sion. While the Mars as­tro­nauts them­selves will travel on a fuel-powered ship, the re­sup­ply craft they’ll meet along the way will use the slower but more cost-ef­fect­ive sol­ar power.

The battle between the com­pet­ing vis­ions plays out in an­nu­al battles over NASA’s budget, where the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­quests fund­ing for its goals, and Re­pub­lic­ans — par­tic­u­larly in the GOP-con­trolled House — push back. And the com­pet­i­tion is made all the more in­tense as the fund­ing pool shrinks: NASA’s fund­ing has di­min­ished by more than a bil­lion dol­lars since 2010 — more than 7 per­cent of a budget that then totaled $18.7 bil­lion.

What every­one agrees on is that without con­sensus, neither plan will work. The Mars plan, said a Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil re­port earli­er this month, can­not suc­ceed “without a sus­tained com­mit­ment on the part of those who gov­ern the na­tion — a com­mit­ment that does not change dir­ec­tion with suc­ceed­ing elect­or­al cycles. Those branches of gov­ern­ment — ex­ec­ut­ive and le­gis­lat­ive — re­spons­ible for NASA’s fund­ing and guid­ance are there­fore crit­ic­al en­a­blers of the na­tion’s in­vest­ment and achieve­ments in hu­man space­flight.”

For now, at least, the unity ap­pears far from likely. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Re­pub­lic­an who chairs the House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee, calls the as­ter­oid mis­sion “un­in­spir­ing.”

Mean­while, Obama and NASA chief Charles Bolden have ac­cused Con­gress of whin­ing about NASA’s lack of am­bi­tion while sim­ul­tan­eously cut­ting its budget. “We can only do so many things,” Bolden said last year.

Obama cited un­der­fund­ing when he scrapped the Bush-pro­posed moon mis­sion in 2010, and NASA’s budget has de­clined since. The moon mis­sion was ex­pec­ted to cost around $100 bil­lion ($10 bil­lion of which was already spent when the pro­gram closed down). The as­ter­oid plan is es­tim­ated at less than $3 bil­lion.

Louis Fried­man, a founder of the Plan­et­ary So­ci­ety, says the GOP stance is hy­po­crit­ic­al. “I don’t think there’s an iota of in­dic­a­tion [that fund­ing would be raised with a re­newed moon fo­cus]. There are people who will talk about that idea.”¦ The idea of ac­tu­ally ap­pro­pri­at­ing ex­tra money, we haven’t seen any­thing like that.”

He said op­pos­i­tion to the as­ter­oid plan is based on re­flex­ive dis­agree­ment with everything Obama pro­poses, rather than con­sidered, tech­nic­al reas­ons. “The in­dustry and NASA are pretty much be­hind the as­ter­oid re­dir­ect,” Fried­man said.

John Logs­don, a former dir­ect­or of George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity’s Space Policy In­sti­tute, doesn’t see it that way. “There are plenty of Demo­crats not in the White House who think it makes sense to go back to the moon,” he said. “[But] every­body at NASA has to sa­lute and say, ‘Yes in­deed.’ “

Logs­don doesn’t dis­count the as­ter­oid plan, but he says the ad­min­is­tra­tion was too quick to write off a re­turn to the moon. “If go­ing back to the moon is ruled out, then the [as­ter­oid re­dir­ect mis­sion] be­comes the best of all pos­sible mis­sions,” he said. “The as­ter­oid re­dir­ect is an in­geni­ous in­ven­tion of something that’s worth do­ing now that we’re not go­ing to the moon.”

So what does NASA stand to gain from each mis­sion? In simple terms, the lun­ar plan would give as­tro­nauts and sci­ent­ists ex­per­i­ence op­er­at­ing on a for­eign sur­face. The as­ter­oid mis­sion would help en­gin­eers de­vel­op tech­no­logy for long-range space­flight.

Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Steven Palazzo, who chairs the Space Sub­com­mit­tee, per­haps best en­cap­su­lated the lun­ar view when he called the moon a “train­ing ground for ven­tur­ing fur­ther in­to the sol­ar sys­tem.” As­ter­oid-hunt­ing, he said, is less a way­po­int to Mars than a “de­tour.”

Of course, there’s also what Fried­man refers to as the “high-ground men­tal­ity” — that Amer­ica shouldn’t cede the lun­ar dom­in­ance it’s held since 1969. While oth­er na­tions race to rep­lic­ate Neil Arm­strong’s feat, the U.S. should main­tain a hu­man pres­ence on the moon, even if it yields no real stra­tegic ad­vant­age.

Logs­don, on the oth­er hand, thinks the lo­gic of a moon base ac­tu­ally is stra­tegic — oth­er­wise no one else would be try­ing to go there. “I frankly don’t think any­one would be push­ing as­ter­oid re­dir­ect if the U.S. em­braced a re­turn to the moon,” he said. “The rest of the world is fo­cused on go­ing to the moon. We’re the only coun­try that’s out of sync with that.”

Amer­ica’s com­pet­it­ive streak isn’t the only reas­on to vis­it our plan­et’s closest neigh­bor. For some, in­clud­ing former NASA Ad­min­is­trat­or Mi­chael Griffin, the reas­on­ing is more ba­sic: sur­viv­al. “In the long run a single-plan­et spe­cies will not sur­vive,” he said, and the soon­er we es­tab­lish out­posts else­where the bet­ter.

While pro-as­ter­oid folks point to cost com­par­is­ons, lun­ar ad­voc­ates say their plan would in­volve a series of mis­sions — rather than a single voy­age — so fund­ing ar­gu­ments are un­fair.

Still, the dis­par­ity in cost is stark. And sup­port­ers of Obama’s plan say the tech­nic­al ad­vant­ages are just as good.

The as­tro­nauts who go to Mars will use rock­et power to move their craft to­ward the Red Plan­et. But with a mis­sion that could take about three years round-trip, they’ll need to re­stock their sup­plies along the way.

Years in ad­vance, NASA will shoot off ships loaded with sup­plies for the Mars-bound (and later Earth-bound) as­tro­nauts. Those craft will use sol­ar-elec­tric propul­sion, a cheap but slow-mov­ing way to move ob­jects around in space.

That’s where the as­ter­oid mis­sion comes in. The first stage of the plan in­volves a ro­bot ship that will spend about four years trav­el­ing to an as­ter­oid. That ship will rely on sol­ar-elec­tric propul­sion, a cru­cial test for the tech­no­logy and a big step in pre­par­ing it for ex­pan­ded use in the Mars mis­sion.

After the un­manned ship cap­tures the as­ter­oid, it will drag it in­to lun­ar or­bit, where as­tro­nauts can land on and in­spect it. Fried­man points out that the as­ter­oid’s prox­im­ity to the moon could sup­port some of the lun­ar sci­ence that moon base ad­voc­ates have called for — without the “de­tour” of build­ing in­fra­struc­ture there (yes, both sides use that word to de­scribe the com­pet­ing plan).

While politi­cians ar­gue, NASA is mov­ing for­ward with the as­ter­oid re­dir­ect plan — but without any as­sur­ance of sup­port from Con­gress. And both sides agree that’s not likely to change. “What I think will hap­pen is that we’ll just muddle along with a plan that tries to do too much with too little money and pro­duces no be­ne­fits ex­cept gov­ern­ment jobs,” Logs­don said.

And fu­ture NASA budgets, like cur­rent ones, are likely to be a “mish­mash of vari­ous com­pet­ing in­terests,” Fried­man said.

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