Casey DreierJul 11, 2013

Dueling Op-Eds on NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission

Keck ARM concept
Keck ARM concept The original Asteroid Redirect Mission concept, as envisioned by the Keck Institute, uses a large capture bag to enclose a small asteroid. NASA has since opted for a claw mechanism that would pluck a small boulder off the surface of a larger asteroid.Image: Rick Sternbach / Keck Institute for Space Studies

On Monday, the newspaper The Hill published dueling op-eds from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and House Science Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX). The op-eds illustrate the large gap in opinion regarding NASA's proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, with NASA and the Administration on one side, and the Republican-controlled House moving further and further away.

From NASA Administrator Bolden:

It is hard to imagine anything more beneficial to humankind than protecting our planet from a dangerous asteroid that could strike Earth with devastating force, something we don't currently have the ability to do. In addition to developing technologies that will aid in our planning for the first human journey to Mars, an asteroid mission will help us learn more about how to prevent an impact from one of these mysterious objects.

Yet Chairman Smith takes a completely opposite view, claiming that the mission does not directly help in protecting Earth from asteroid impacts at all:

The proposed asteroid retrieval mission would contribute very little to planetary defense efforts. The size of the target asteroid for this mission is only 7-10 meters in diameter, too small to cause any damage to Earth. Any insight gained by such a mission would have little relevance to protecting against larger "city-killer" asteroids.

Smith is basically correct here, though you'll notice that Bolden isn't quite talking about the same thing. Bolden only ever states that ARM will "help us learn more about" ways to prevent asteroid impacts. That's pretty hedge-y.

What strikes me most, though, is how much energy NASA is spending trying to argue for this program. Shouldn't that have happened behind-the-scenes before they rolled this out? What if they were pushing this hard to explore Europa? Or improve the Orion Crew module so it could last longer than 21 days in space? By engaging in this extended public debate with the House Republicans, NASA's focus is drawn away from many other issues.

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