Where did the idea for an asteroid retrieval mission come from, who sold it to the Obama administration, and why did the administration buy it?
I’ve asked many of my colleagues these questions, gathering quite a bit of second-or third-hand information and speculation. I’ll focus on examining primary information: the April 2, 2012, Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) asteroid return mission study report.
The study was sponsored by KISS, which describes itself as “a think and do tank… “established at Caltech in January 2008 with a $24 million grant over 8 years from the W. M. Keck Foundation…whose primary purpose is to bring together a broad spectrum of scientists and engineers for sustained technical interaction aimed at developing new space mission concepts and technology.” According to KISS, the study “was carried out in part at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”
KISS also lists as one of its projects the 2011 “CalTech Space Challenge,” a student competition to design a humans-to-an-asteroid mission: “If you’re a student who’s ever wanted to plan a manned space mission—or channel your inner Bruce Willis from the movie Armageddon—now’s your chance. This September, Caltech will a host a workshop inviting about 20 graduate and undergraduate students from around the world to design a mission to an asteroid or comet in Earth’s neighborhood—a so-called Near-Earth Object (NEO)—that would return a sample of rock or ice. The Caltech Space Challenge, sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, will pit two groups against each other to plan the best mission. ‘Designing a human-exploration mission to a near-Earth asteroid is both timely and exciting,’ says Donald Yeomans, who manages NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL and is one of the faculty mentors for the workshop. ‘The most spacecraft-accessible asteroids in Earth’s neighborhood are also the most dangerous in terms of their ability to collide with Earth’.”
The “adult” study group included experts from JPL and CalTech; Lou Friedman, former executive director of The Planetary Society; former NASA astronaut and current “strategic advisor” to the B612 Foundation Tom Jones; former NASA astronaut and current member of the board of the B612 Foundation Rusty Schweickart; and Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources;.
This study articulated the rationale and benefits of an asteroid return mission as follows: “synergy with near-term human exploration, expansion of international cooperation in space, synergy with planetary defense, exploitation of asteroid resources, [and] public engagement.”
A now-standard element of the pitch for an asteroid retrieval mission is that the idea of mining asteroids is very old. According to the KISS study, “The idea of exploiting the natural resources of asteroids dates back over a hundred years, but only now has the technology become available to make this idea a reality.” Just because an idea is old doesn’t mean that it is very good. Just because technology may be available (a point on which I would beg to differ – at least it’s not available at anything near a manageable cost) doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use it. And how about the legality of corporate mining of space resources? According to international law – that is, the the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty – “the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind. Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.”
According to the KISS study, NASA Glenn Research Center’s Collaborative Modeling for Parametric Assessment of Space Systems (COMPASS) lab “estimated the full life-cycle cost of an asteroid capture and return mission at ~$2.6B.” According to NASA Glenn’s Space Flight Systems Directorate web site, “Glenn also supports the Collaborative Modeling for Parametric Assessment of Space Systems (COMPASS) team, which consists of technical experts at NASA. They use the systems analysis tools to conduct trade studies on space exploration vehicles. The resulting data must be kept up-to-date and available to other NASA centers for further analysis.” I have not yet been able to find any further details about the COMPASS lab and its analysis (my web browser tells me that access to the COMPASS lab web site is “forbidden”). I do note that GRC’s Space Technology Office includes divisions for solar electric propulsion, in-space propulsion, space power systems, manufacturing innovation, and in-situ resource utilization.
The KISS study also claims, “The excitement of changing the orbit and harnessing the resources of a celestial object for space exploration is obvious.”
At the risk of appearing to be more thick-headed than I am, it is not obvious to me. And while I may have missed it, I am not aware of an upwelling of public interest in this idea (beyond space geekdom, that is…).