A pair of Republican congressmen, both of whom sit on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, contacted NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Tuesday, requesting more information from the space administration about a recent report supporting the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The ARM program aims to intercept a near-Earth asteroid, grab a boulder from its surface using a robotic spacecraft and then coax said boulder into a stable orbit around the moon where it can be studied at leisure by future manned missions.
Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the HCSST, and Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of of the HSST space subcommittee, made the request because they reportedly feel that the incoming administration should be "unencumbered" by decisions made by the current one -- like what they want to do with the ACA -- and has access to "honest assessments" of ARM's value rather than "farcical studies scoped to produce a predetermined outcome."
Specifically, the pair questioned a November 16th report which proposed that performing this mission would close five "strategic knowledge gaps" (SKGs), or subjects that NASA has said it needs additional experience or technologies in before it can continue its space exploration plans. These SKGs include everything from how to limit a crew's radiation exposure during round trip missions, how many such missions a crew could complete before radiation exposure becomes an issue or how to even land on and collect materials from the orbiting boulder. What's more, these are SKGs would be answered with the completion of the baseline ARM mission -- we could close another eight knowledge gaps (out of NASA's total of 27) with subsequent follow-up missions.
"This report is an important step in identifying ways that ARM will be more scientifically relevant as we continue mission formulation for the robotic and the crew segments," Michele Gates, program director for ARM, wrote in the November 16th statement. It was this conclusion with which Reps Smith and Babin are taking umbrage. The two argued that NASA has set a "bizarrely low bar" for the role ARM would play in closing these SKGs, citing that NASA itself had previously questioned the need for the ARM mission.
The ARM program was already under assault from the GOP before Smith and Babin's letter. The House's version of the 2017 FY appropriations bill includes wording that would force NASA to fully defund the ARM program. Furthermore, the two reps wrote, "the next Administration may find merit in some, if not all, of the components of ARM, and continue the program; however, that decision should be made after a full and fair review based on the merits of the program and in the context of a larger exploration and science strategy." Funny, coming from an administration that has already announced that it plans to dismantle NASA's Earth-study programs and defund "politicized" climate change research.