Back to the Moon? New House Bill Defunds NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission

Artist's conception of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. The new House bill directs NASA to bypass this mission and return to the Moon instead, before going to Mars. Image Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The new House bill directs NASA to bypass this mission and return to the Moon instead, before going to Mars. Image Credit: NASA

Sending human astronauts to Mars is a dream shared by many, but there are still challenges to overcome and the question of just how to accomplish it is a subject of intense debate. Some supporters advocate sending a mission directly to Mars, while others think that returning to the Moon first, for potentially beneficial training, is the way to go. Indeed, former astronaut James Lovell, who flew on two trips to the Moon, has also called for a return to the Moon first. NASA itself has stated its desire to send a crewed mission to a nearby asteroid first, instead of the Moon, going a bit farther into space than the Moon as its idea of preparation for the much longer journey to Mars. A major problem has been that NASA has still not set a firm timetable for such a mission; it wants to go to Mars, but the steps to achieving that goal are still unclear.

Now, the House Appropriations Committee has spoken on the issue in a new report and has made changes in the budget for fiscal year 2017, calling for NASA to abandon its asteroid idea and send astronauts back to the Moon first, before going to Mars.

The draft report from the committee was released May 23, with the spending bill being taken up yesterday. The bill provides $19.508 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2017, with strong support for planetary science. $1.846 billion is allocated to planetary science, which is $327 million more than NASA’s request. This is also $490 million above the level in a companion bill which was approved by Senate appropriators last month. While planetary science overall continues to be a priority, the proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) has been axed. ARM would retrieve a boulder-sized sample from a nearby asteroid and place in orbit around the Moon for further study. A robotic spacecraft would pick up the boulder from a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA), place it in lunar orbit, and then the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion would be used to take astronauts to the asteroid.

Returning astronauts to the Moon has been a dream of many, and now the House is advising that such a mission or missions would be a beneficial step on NASA's journey to Mars. Photo Credit: NASA
Returning astronauts to the Moon has been a dream of many, and now the House is advising that such a mission or missions would be a beneficial step on NASA’s journey to Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

But the new direction that the House wants NASA to go now is pretty self-evident. Going to an asteroid would be a waste of time, while returning to the Moon would better allow NASA to test technologies which will be crucial for a mission to Mars. This would also be preferable to launching a mission straight to Mars instead, given the complexity of such an endeavor. Needless to say, returning to the Moon, perhaps establishing a long-awaited base there, and then going to Mars would be a lot more compelling to most people than plucking a rock off an asteroid.

As also outlined in the report, “Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill 2017” (pg. 61):

“Mission to Mars. While the Committee recognizes the benefits of some of the technology that is under development as part of the asteroid redirect and retrieval missions, namely advanced propulsion technology research, asteroid deflection, and grappling technologies, the Committee believes that neither a robotic nor a crewed mission to an asteroid appreciably contribute to the over-arching mission to Mars. Further, the long-term costs of launching a robotic craft to the asteroid, followed by a crewed mission, are unknown and will divert scarce resources away from developing technology and equipment necessary for missions to Mars, namely deep space habitats, accessing and utilizing space resources, and developing entry, descent, landing, and ascent technologies.”

Toward that end, no funds are included in this bill for NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid. Instead, NASA is encouraged to develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles.

Further, the Committee is supportive of NASA’s efforts to use the International Space Station (ISS) to conduct research necessary to enable long-term human spaceflight, or ”Earth-reliant” technology development; cis-lunar space activities, or ”proving ground” efforts such as Orion flights on SLS in the vicinity of the Moon, and deployment and testing of deep space habitation modules; and finally, NASA’s ”Earth independent” activities which include using cis-lunar space as a staging area, mapping potential human exploration zones, and caching samples on Mars as part of the Mars Rover 2020 mission.

SLS and Orion, which NASA wants to use to return to the Moon or go to Mars, also received an increase in funding, and an additional $30 million has been directed to the Discovery program, for lower-cost planetary missions. The House directs NASA to select two proposals every four years.

NASA's 'Journey to Mars' program has been criticized for lacking a clear timetable. Would a return to the Moon help change that? Image Credit: NASA
NASA’s ‘Journey to Mars’ program has been criticized for lacking a clear timetable. Would a return to the Moon help change that? Image Credit: NASA

The increase in funding for planetary science would go primarily toward the Europa mission. The bill allocates $260 million toward the mission, which is still in the early planning stages. Such a mission to this moon of Jupiter, which has a subsurface ocean beneath the surface ice crust, is understandably more exciting than retrieving a chunk of rock. The mission is supposed to launch sometime in the 2020s, where a spacecraft orbiting Jupiter would make 45 close flybys of Europa to study its surface and interior in unprecedented detail, including taking many high-resolution images and probing the subsurface with ice-penetrating radar. A magnetometer would also study the moon’s magnetic field which would allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean. The committee is recommending the orbiter to be launched in 2022 and a small lander in 2024. Another recent report notes that the moon’s ocean may be even more potentially habitable than first thought, further “wetting[sic] the appetite” for those who want to explore this fascinating moon.

As well as providing no funding for ARM, the bill also decreases funding for Earth Science to $1.69 billion, which is $342 million below NASA’s request and $294 million below the level in the Senate bill.

A return to Jupiter's ocean moon Europa remains another major component of the new bill. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
A return to Jupiter’s ocean moon Europa remains another major component of the new bill. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

No specific funding level was allocated yet for NASA’s commercial crew program, although NASA had requested $1.18 billion.

It should also be noted that ARM is completely separate from the upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission, to be launched in September 2016, where a robotic spacecraft will obtain a sample from an asteroid and return it to Earth in 2023.

NASA has faced a lot of criticism for its “Journey to Mars” program, which, while sounding compelling, still hasn’t provided a firm timetable for such an ambitious mission. The Space Launch System and Orion are being developed, but without a specific timetable, they have nowhere to go, yet. Although not backed by NASA administrator Charles Bolden, the back-to-the Moon-first approach has been called common sense by various industry leaders. There has also been growing debate over whether the first astronauts should land on Mars, land on one of its moons, or simply orbit. As part of NASA’s plans, Lockheed Martin has also just announced its goal of establishing an orbiting Mars base called Mars Base Camp, by 2028.

The new directive from the House stands in contrast to President Obama’s statement in 2010 that there was no need for NASA to return to the Moon: “We’ve been there before … there’s a lot more space to explore.”

If the bill is signed into law, it will begin a new chapter in space exploration, where the Moon once again becomes a stepping stone to the ultimate destination: Mars. It was also on this day in 1961 when President Kennedy announced the goal of “Landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Now it seems that we may finally be going back.

The full draft of the committee report can be seen here, and the bill can be seen here.


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  1. Seems like a sensible thing to do. Just as long as we send humans somewhere beyond LEO. Hope we can divvy up Moon resources with China and Russia in some equitable fashion. But something tells me we will all be squabbling over things in years to come. The Europa mission sounds truly exciting, something to look forward to. When they erect a Moonbase of some kind, many will say, “Well, it took them long enough.” But it is sensible if we develop tech for eventual Mars visits, particularly if we follow through and actually send people to Mars at some point.

    • M Wilson –

      Yep, it “Seems like a sensible thing to do”.

      Without the extensive human and robotic training and the long-term testing of our essential transportation and life support systems in LEO, Cislunar Space, and on and below the Moon’s surface, Mars has unacceptably high risks.

      ‘How You’ll Die On Mars’ By Loren Grush on May 26, 2015 at Popular Science, wherein it is noted: “Though we may soon have the launch vehicles needed to transport people to Mars, a lot of the technology required to keep astronauts alive on the planet just isn’t ready–and it may not be for many years. For those eager to get to Mars as soon as possible, take caution: A number of tragic outcomes await if you head that way too soon.”

      The long-term testing of highly reliable and robust systems for Galactic Cosmic Radiation shielding, In-Situ Resource Utilization (or ISRU), artificial gravity, and electric power generation for affordable future human Mars and Ceres surface missions needs to be done on the Moon and in the rest of Cislunar Space.

      Human Mars and Ceres missions won’t initially be easy, but if we get serious about fully using the many assets of the International Space Station in LEO and an ISRU and research base on the Moon, we should eventually be ready to do human deep space missions successfully and in a sustainable manner.

      • “The long-term testing of highly reliable and robust systems for Galactic Cosmic Radiation shielding, In-Situ Resource Utilization (or ISRU), artificial gravity, and electric power generation for affordable future human Mars and Ceres surface missions needs to be done on the Moon and in the rest of Cislunar Space.”

        Additionally (barring some kind of fundamental propulsions breakthrough) the only way a Mars Mission is going to make practical (as opposed the theoretical) sense is use of Lunar ISRU, that is use of the abundant water ice now known to exist at both lunar poles for manufacture of Hydrogen/Oxygen propellant.

      • “Mars has unacceptably high risks”
        Says you.

        “Loren Grush at Popular Science”
        Yeah, Loren with her journalism degree at Popular Science, my go-to place for complex aerospace human-factors engineering info.

        people who habitually say “note” then copy ‘n paste a link and selected text from other publications into forums are tiresome.

        • “people who habitually say “note” then copy ‘n paste a link and selected text from other publications into forums are tiresome.”

          If you find access to information “tiresome” you are not obligated to read it.

          Or is it opinions that differ from yours (backed up by other information sources) you find “tiresome”?

        • “Both Nelson and Donoviel reiterate that at present, NASA is unable to send people to Mars and still confidently stick to a three percent risk of developing cancer later in life. That certainly doesn’t mean the research will stop — but if the agency intends to put boots on the red planet by the end of the 2030s, they have a lot more work to do to solve the space radiation puzzle.” From: ‘Space Radiation Is Quietly Stopping Us From Sending Humans to Mars In order to create a colony, we need to be able to survive a long trip through space.’ By Neel V. Patel November 17, 2015 at Inverse

          “Out in space, it is estimated that it would take about three days for every single one of your trillions of body cells to be hit by a high-energy proton (the lightest and most common galactic cosmic ray). Over the course of a year, each of your cells would likely have encountered at least one heavy and damaging iron nuclei. Other types of radiation are relatively weak and diffuse, sort of like a BB pellet, making a galactic cosmic ray a cannonball – large, weighty, and packing a punch.”
          ‘Space Radiation Remains Major Hazard for Humans Going to Mars’ By Adam Mann 4/24/2014 at Wired


          Mortality and morbidity risks from space radiation exposure are an important concern for astronauts participating in International Space Station (ISS) missions. NASA’s radiation limits set a 3% cancer fatality probability as the upper bound of acceptable risk and considers uncertainties in risk predictions using the upper 95% confidence level (CL) of the assessment. In addition to risk limitation, an important question arises as to the likelihood of a causal association between a crew-members’ radiation exposure in the past and a diagnosis of cancer. For the first time, we report on predictions of age and sex specific cancer risks, expected years of life-loss for specific diseases, and probability of causation (PC) at different post-mission times for participants in 1-year or multiple ISS missions. Risk projections with uncertainty estimates are within NASA acceptable radiation standards for mission lengths of 1-year or less for likely crew demographics. However, for solar minimum conditions upper 95% CL exceed 3% risk of exposure induced death (REID) by 18 months or 24 months for females and males, respectively. Median PC and upper 95%-confidence intervals are found to exceed 50% for several cancers for participation in two or more ISS missions of 18 months or longer total duration near solar minimum, or for longer ISS missions at other phases of the solar cycle. However, current risk models only consider estimates of quantitative differences between high and low linear energy transfer (LET) radiation. We also make predictions of risk and uncertainties that would result from an increase in tumor lethality for highly ionizing radiation reported in animal studies, and the additional risks from circulatory diseases. These additional concerns could further reduce the maximum duration of ISS missions within acceptable risk levels, and will require new knowledge to properly evaluate.”
          From: ‘Space Radiation Risks for Astronauts on Multiple International Space Station Mission’ By Francis A. Cucinotta April 23, 2014 at PLOS

          • So do use control C and Control V, or command C and command V, or mouse control click or right click?

            • Do you ever even try to add actual content to a discussion or do you just attempt juvenile level snark at anyone who dares to say something with which you disagree.

              • Copying & pasting isn’t “adding content” to the conversation in a website’s comments.

                • “Of course, the obvious answer to the problem of what to do is to return to the surface of the Moon and develop its resources to enable more distant space goals. But under the current regime, it has been decreed that such thinking is not permitted within the agency. (Although there is no formal written policy stating this, my sources attest to its reality nonetheless.) This discouragement of any logical thinking appears to be solely in response to the absurd decree by President Obama in 2010 that there was no need to go to the Moon because ‘we’ve been there.'” From: ‘Organizational Whiplash: Why NASA Needs A Change in Direction’ by Paul Spudis April 20, 2016 At:

                  • Good Point.

                    Utilization of the Moon and its resources is the most practical path forward for the development of Human Space Flight.

            • “The Mars rover Curiosity has allowed us to finally calculate an average dose over the 180-day journey. It is approximately 300 mSv, the equivalent of 24 CAT scans. In just getting to Mars, an explorer would be exposed to more than 15 times an annual radiation limit for a worker in a nuclear power plant.”
              From: ‘Calculated Risks: How Radiation Rules Manned Mars Exploration’ By Sheyna E. Gifford, MD, February 18, 2014 at Space

              “They found that the mice who had been exposed to the simulated radiation were less cognizant of or even completely unfazed by changes around them, or by familiar objects, suggesting that there had been a cognitive break due to the radiation. When researchers studied the mice’s brain tissues, their suspicions proved correct: the less curious mice had suffered structural changes in their brains, and their brain cells showed significantly less branching.”

              And, “If exposed to similar conditions, researchers determined, astronauts’ brains could suffer cognitive consequences. In a statement, Limoli said: ‘Over the course of a two- to three-year mission, the damage would accumulate.'”
              From: ‘New Obstacle to Mars Mission: Brain Damage From Radiation’
              By Paula Mejia On 5/2/15 at NEWSWEEK

    • Actually, the moon never would’ve been taken off, if the Congress would’ve provided funding for it when they reinstated funding for SLS/Orion. Because, there was only enough funds left to do the cheapest thing which was the asteroid mission. Looks like common sense is finally catching up with the House on the moon matter. Now the only thing is if the Senate passes the same legislation & the President approves. But, if the House haven’t provided the extra funds for Lunar surface excursions, then, we are right back where we were in 2010.

  2. If we could now put on our “20/20 hindsight glasses,” I believe we would say that returning to the Moon before a Mars mission was the right thing to do. All the reasons mentioned for doing so make perfect sense.

  3. It certainly looks like the private sector will get to the Moon, Mars an Asteroid before an SLS NASA mission which is how it should be once the technology has matured…Which clearly has occurred.

  4. This really is a ‘no brainer’. Going back to the Moon is of course the obvious next step. After all is said and done,IF YOU really want to sample asteroids there are millions of them laying around on the Moon!

    • Yep.

      Lots of folks are doing some serious thinking about the Moon.

      “A Lunar Station can provide many benefits to NASA and the country. It would serve as a necessary step between our current capabilities in LEO and our aspirations to establish a
      permanent presence on Mars. It can provide a testing and proving ground for a variety of important advanced technologies and capabilities, including robotics, ISRU, resource depots, deep-space crew habitats, closed-loop life support, in-space propulsion, optical communication, and space-additive manufacturing to name a few.”
      From: VOL. 4 NO. 1 2016 NEW SPACE ‘BRIEF REPORTS Lunar Station: ‘The Next Logical Step in Space Development’ By Robert Bruce Pittman, Lynn D. Harper, Mark E. Newfield, and Daniel J. Rasky At:

  5. I would say that going here, there, or yonder depends on who is going,why they are going, and who is paying for it. Beyond that, economics takes over. I have some Mars First, and Mars Only friends that don’t see this.

    A ship on a Lunar run can transport twice a month while a Mar vessel can transport once every four years barring new propulsion tech. About to 100/1 transport system utilization difference. There is not as big a difference in propellant, though there is some, especially including the propellant and propulsion for the years of supplies required for the transport segment of the Mars run. A five ton cycler could deliver five hundred tons to the moon in four years, while it would take a five hundred ton mars cycler to deliver the same mass in the same time frame, Except that the en-route consumables, required spares, and additional life support equipment would likely make it some multiple of that.

    So which is more feasible, a five ton lunar ship or a thousand ton Mars ship to get a similar job done? I’m not overly worried about opponents to my views, it does disturb me that some of my friends will be upset if they read this.

    • I would prefer a vessel that can do Lunar & with a extra supplies,etc… added, also Mars. It makes no sense to design for Moon only & then have to design & build another ship for Mars. Lockheed’s proposal for a Mars orbiting base ship does that because the same ship can also be used in Cislunar space. We’ll see what SpaceX comes up with in September, then, we can compare the different proposals.

      And for the record, the Orion MPCV is the only manned space capsule that is currently being built, in the U.S., for BEO use. Every other current U.S. manned vehicle is for LEO use only.

      • Vessels for Lunar vs Mars are the equivalent of English channel transport vs Atlantic ocean transport. Both useful, but different functions have different requirements. Doesn’t mean you can’t cross the Atlantic with a channel ferry, just that serious quantities of preplanning and luck become involved. I’m not against Mars trips, just against having to pay (as taxpayer) for expensive trips of limited utility. If someone wants to go to Mars fine, as long as they pay their own way, same as the moon.

        • “Propellantless Propulsion for LEO Spacecraft
          ED tether systems can provide propellantless propulsion for spacecraft operating in low Earth orbit. Because the tether system does not consume propellant, it can provide very large delta-V’s with a very small total mass, dramatically reducing costs for missions that involve delta-V hungry maneuvers such as formation flying, low-altitude stationkeeping, orbit raising, and end-of-mission deorbit.” From: Electrodynamic Tethers At:

          Perhaps eventually, an “electrodynamic thrust” cargo spaceship in LEO could be ‘velocity pumped’ during the spacecraft’s orbital time near its LEO perigee to ever higher and more highly elliptical orbits. The ever increasing apogee eventually intersects Lunar orbit, or the Lunar surface, with the apogee remaining in LEO.

          If we can use solar powered batteries and “electrodynamic thrust” propulsion while the cargo spaceship is near its LEO perigee to repeatedly ‘pump’ the vessel into a increasingly higher elliptical orbits, the propellant requirements and costs of getting supplies to the Moon’s surface could be reduced.

    • Leave it to you John to make a sensible argument. 😉

      The limiting factor isn’t the windows, but how many ships in total you can economically send and what those payloads can accomplish. That levels the playing field considerably. What tilts it toward mars is the moon requiring imports that mars doesn’t. Given the same start, mars grows faster. Give the moon a better start and mars may still grow faster. Only if the moon gets radical levels of support would it compete with mars.

      It could happen but I have my doubts. Then throw in human nature and the moon becomes even less desirable. The moon is a place earth folk will visit. Martians will live on mars.

      If SpaceX were to make regular runs to the moon as they plan to do for mars that might change things as well.

      • About the SpaceX Mars “plan” (they will apparently introduce another new one later this year) it keeps changing so is hard to analyze a moving target, but in the past Musk has stated:

        (1) It will have the capability (using only chemical upper stages) to place a 100 tonne payload on the Martian surface in a single launch. That would require the launcher to place the mass equivalent of a fully fueled Saturn 5 moon rocket into LEO on a single launch (hat tip to John Hare for that analogy). BFR indeed.

        (2) The payload (at 100 tonnes) will carry 100 colonists. 1 tonne/passenger, going to be pretty crowded for a month’s long trip.

        (3) In order to build up his enormous Martian Colony it will fly 1,000 times/year. But Martian launch windows open only once every 26 months. The duration of the windows is dependent on the capabilities of the launch vehicle. With only chemical rockets used it is generous to give 30 day duration. That means to average 1,000 flights/year during those thirty days the “plan” would require launching every 20 minutes around the clock for the entire 30 days. A truly aggressive launch schedule.

        “What tilts it toward mars is the moon requiring imports that mars doesn’t.”

        Given the discovery of large concentrations of water ice and other volatiles (Carbon, Nitrogen, etc.) at both the lunar poles (you can learn about this in the new book The Value of the Moon – at the link below), what “imports” do you believe the Moon requires that Mars would not?

  6. in these times of govt waste and their is alot too we aree going to have to approach this mars project just as pres kennedy said back in the day and we have to go to mars not because its easy but because it is hard hehe when we went to the moon we didnt have a planet to go pratice to make sure we can make it is do able so use the advanced technology we have and it is far more advanced now in comparison to back back in the 60s ,…….. So let gear up and go to MARS wanna take a ride and life is a chance anyway GOD wants us to explore and not kill each other

    • Perry
      I agree… If we sent a rover to Mars to look for unnatural artifacts wouldn’t that involve everyone on the planet? I think that would be a global treasure hunt that everyone could participate in…Also I don’t think there is Government waste rather what we are seeing is corruption NOT incompetence.

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