Exit Interview: Lori Garver on NASA’s Controversial Plan to Move an Asteroid

By Corey S. Powell | August 16, 2013 11:55 pm

A conversation with NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver is always livelier than her title would suggest. Her enthusiasm for all things space is immediately evident, and she always seems on the verge of speaking more candidly than her position supposedly allows. She’s not entirely immune to the carefully crafted talking points typically served up by high-level government officials, but the punctuations in her speech—“wow” when excited, “frankly” when frustrated—strip away the veneer.

Asteroid mission

Asteroid Redirect Mission–one current concept illustrated here–would latch onto a small asteroid and then use high-power solar electric propulsion to haul it to near-Earth space. (Credit: NASA/Advanced Concepts Lab)

Lately, Garver has been using plenty of both words as she drums up support for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, a proposal to send a robotic spacecraft to a small near-Earth asteroid (perhaps about 15-20 feet wide), tow it back to a location near the moon, and send astronauts to study it. The concept has sparked a lot of public excitement, but also a fair bit of skepticism on Capital Hill, where the House Science Committee voted to block funding for the program.

I questioned Garver at length about the mission, and why it has sparked such diverse reactions. A few days later, I found out that our conversation, shared here, was actually something of an exit interview: On September 6, Graver announced, she will be leaving NASA to take over as the head of the Air Line Pilots Association. I will miss her role at NASA, as I imagine will many inside the agency. [For more space and astronomy news, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell]

Why grab an asteroid and move it? How does that fit in with NASA’s larger strategy?

To us asteroids have been scientifically fascinating celestial objects for a long time. We know they’ve been critical to our planet and life on it in the past. They are a potential resource for longer-term space development. And they serve as a destination on our way for human expiration of Mars and beyond. For all these reasons, when we outlined a strategy for human space development, asteroids were a natural target.

As we were developing that strategy, we were looking at ways to advance all our objectives. The Asteroid Redirect Mission gets us a much bigger asteroid sample sooner than we’d be able to otherwise, lets us enhance our observational capability, gives us a destination to leverage already existing investments in Orion/SLS [the new NASA space capsule and Space Launch System rockets] and solar-electric propulsion [an extremely efficient, low-thrust way to accelerate a spacecraft]. Being able to separate the robotic aspect of this mission from the human part, from a risk perspective, is also a very elegant solution.

So when this mission formulation was brought to us we were very excited to take it forward. It is extremely well-aligned with our overall scientific, technological, and human space flight objectives. It’s just a natural for us.

This basic concept emerged from a 2012 study by the Keck Institute for Space Studies. How did it come to your attention and become a NASA priority?

The first time I heard of it was about a year and a half ago from the folks working on Keck. The human space flight program folks here were looking for how we could formulate a mission to go to an asteroid. Then we heard about this configuration, and the human space flight people were asking, “Well, can we do this? Will this fulfill what we’re trying to do?” I said, “Are you kidding? You can demonstrate we can move an asteroid? Yeah. That works.” It was a very exciting time.

The long-pull intent was for astronauts to go to an asteroid for some hundreds-of-days mission, but the medical community is not prepared to allow astronauts to do that yet. The Asteroid Redirect Mission allows us to make progress [by bringing the asteroid into near-Earth space, where it would be only a few days away]. This mission has the added benefit of utilizing solar electric propulsion. We were already doing a solar electric propulsion demonstrator. Instead of just demonstrating it why not go somewhere? [The mission would use solar-electric propulsion as the engine for moving the asteroid into an orbit around the moon.]

ARM concept

Garver’s travel-time argument: Towing an asteroid into a “distant retrograde orbit” near the moon gives astronauts a new destination that is accessible via a short-duration space mission. (Credit: NASA)

How much is this mission about testing technologies for asteroid deflection—at least implicitly, even if that isn’t the overt goal?

The primary aspect is human exploration. We’re spending $3 billion a year on SLS/Orion; they’re going to L2 [CORRECTED: an equilibrium point about 37,000 miles beyond the moon]. This mission is a first, very worthwhile thing for them to do while they’re there. That’s sort of the core rationale. Then you look at it scientifically, and we can advance the time when we can have big asteroid samples. That is huge, both for studying the origins of the solar system as well as how asteroids might be utilized for space resource development.

And then you get to the idea—wow—as we understand these near-Earth asteroids better we’ll know how to manipulate them potentially for the future. No question, if you were just going about doing that you wouldn’t necessarily send humans. But if you already have a human mission, you can learn a lot more about asteroids, which ultimately will be beneficial for learning to manipulate them.

What do you make of the Congressional resistance to the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and how do you think you can get past that?

I’m optimistic that we will eventually be able to do that. Frankly, I’m also disappointed that we have not seen the support yet. The fact that a science committee of Congress who had, I think, two of their first three hearings focused on detecting asteroids and the importance of that to citizens of this planet does not see that the Asteroid Redirect Mission is a valuable thing to do is a little disconcerting. We have had full, very detailed briefings with our top human space flight, technology, and science people on Capital Hill these past few months explaining the mission and how it ties into our plans. I think there are just, right now, some things that because of the partisan nature of this Congress we are not going to be able to convince them.

This is going to be a debate that goes on over the next few months as the NASA budget goes to the Senate on the authorizing side, as it goes to the appropriators in both the House and Senate. We will continue to give as much information as we can about the importance of asteroids, and about how this mission ties in with so many of the things we’re doing, to have the greatest possible return from our taxpayer investment in space exploration.

NASA had no trouble getting support for OSIRIS-REx, which will collect a sample from asteroid Bennu around 2019. Why is the Asteroid Redirect Mission so controversial?

It’s a partly, as I said, a reflection of the partisan nature of where we are now. But keep in mind that OSIRIS-REx is a competed mission, part of the Discovery Program. NASA created Discovery 20 years ago to address issues like we’re having now with this asteroid mission: The political nature of getting funding through is not conducive to selecting which type of mission should be done. We were able to take politics out of the process by saying, “Okay, you acknowledge that we should be doing this cadence of missions, at these levels of funding, over this period of time. Now we are going to competitively select them with peer review.” For science that has worked extremely well.

Human space flight doesn’t have that peer review process, so human spaceflight programs get a level of scrutiny—which, frankly, they deserve, because they’re more money and they are based on more geopolitical concerns and so forth. But in this case, SLS and Orion are already approved. You’re spending the $3 billion already and you’re really saying you don’t want to spend the extra $200, $300 hundred million a year it would take for a few years to do this valuable thing [the Asteroid Redirect Mission] with those? That’s what I find challenging. Let’s be honest about the debate and what this mission will accomplish within what we’re already doing.

What about the support within the scientific community? What’s the reaction been like there?

I hear some scientists saying, “Uh-oh. Here’s this, what looks like it could be a science mission and we didn’t get to peer review it.” So you have some of those concerns, too. And I’m saying, “Well wait a minute. This isn’t coming out of science budget. This is a human space flight mission.” The Asteroid Redirect Mission doesn’t have a natural constituency, other than asteroid detection folks. And let’s face it—that’s a $20 million community at this point. But one of the things I like to tell the scientists or ask them is, “Okay, so if you were a lunar scientist in 1961, were you excited—did you benefit from Apollo?” We weren’t going to get the funding for Apollo just from science, but here we got this incredible understanding of the moon based on human space flight. I think the same will happen with the asteroid mission.

Asteroid Redirect Mission

A small near-Earth asteroid slips into the maw of the Asteroid Redirect Mission in this conceptual illustration. An alternate proposal would harvest a similar-size boulder off a larger asteroid. (Credit: NASA)

What is the mood toward the Asteroid Redirect Mission within NASA itself?

The excitement that the NASA team has had over this last six months as this came together, I have not felt in all my time at NASA. It’s very exciting. It runs across mission directorates, and in a different way than I’ve seen before.

How much do you project this mission would cost? Early reports indicated a target of $1 billion; the Keck study suggested more like $2.5 billion. Can you pin that number down?

One of our main areas of focus over the next few months is mission formulation and budget preparation, because we absolutely need to do that. I’d argue that the two numbers aren’t that much different in the sense that normally a human space flight mission would be in the tens of billions. If we’re saying that this is a $1 billion to $2.5 billion framework, that’s probably doable over the number of years we’re talking about. If it’s going to be twice that, maybe it’s something we won’t propose going forward.

We certainly have science missions that cost more; MSL [the Mars Science Lander, now better known as the Curiosity rover] was more. But a human space flight mission that returns this kind of science, that returns these kind of assets, in the $1 to $2 billion range is pretty incredible. If we can formulate a mission that sticks to that budget we will be able to do it in a reasonable timeframe. Wow, if it’s $1 billion, we can certainly handle that and keep to the schedule. If it’s more than that it might take another couple of years.

The 2014 request—the one under consideration right now—includes $105 million to get started. Where does the money go?

About $38 million is for solar-electric propulsion technology, $40 million for robotic capability–so that’s inhuman space flight—and $20 million in science for enhanced detection, basically doubling our asteroid-detection budget. The extra $7 million is what we have focused on an “asteroid grand challenge,” which is not just detection but creative partnerships and ways to do this that will be leveraged with non-NASA innovative ideas.

Garver

Lori Garver, at NASA Kennedy Space Center, watches the March 1 launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon space capsule onboard. Garver is an energetic supporter of private spaceflight. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

How does the grand challenge work? Are you inviting anyone to approach NASA and suggest ways to find and move asteroids?

The asteroid grand challenge is really all encompassing. This piece of the grand challenge is to find all asteroid threats to human populations and figure out what to do about them. And our framing for that as part of these White House grand challenges is to be able to partner with other U.S. government agencies, private sector partners, as well as international. For asteroid detection there’s a lot of other agency participation as well as international, and we’re getting more and more private sector interest. There’s B612, and also Planetary Resources. Then you look at are there things that they might want to do beyond just detection for the mission.

We put out the RFI [Request for Information] because we had folks coming in with really creative ideas for how they might incorporate some of their planning into the mission. It’s been exciting to see how many folks are interested in this. And not just from this country. We’ve had a number of discussions with non-U.S. space agencies. The Japanese were in last week and they said their own aerospace industry, within Japan, is interested.

There are still competing concepts for the Asteroid Redirect Mission—grabbing a small, free-floating asteroid or collecting a boulder off a larger object. When and how will you resolve that?

All of that to be finalized for what will be our budget request for ’15. So this fall we will have, I think, a determination of more of the details of the mission. There are some interesting things about going to a larger asteroid that would allow it to align better both with asteroid detection programs, as well as potential mitigation technology. We’re looking at launching the robotic portion, the solar electric propulsion portion, in 2018 at the earliest. And making EM2—Exploration Mission 2, the one that was going to go to L2—having that in 2021 be when the astronauts visit the asteroid. All that presupposes that you were able to detect a target asteroid that you could get to with the 2018 launch and be moved by 2021. Those are all notional. Again, we’ll be formulating the budgets and see how that all aligns.

What about the most difficult aspect of the mission: capturing and maneuvering an asteroid to a new location? What are the next tech steps there?

Well we have the Keck work, and JPL is working on with another four or five of our NASA centers to get their technologies. Goddard has an incredibly robust capability for robotic servicing that started when we were going to do the unmanned Hubble rescue mission [which was scrubbed in favor of servicing by astronauts aboard the shuttle Atlantis in May, 2009]. We were at the Glenn Research Center not too long ago and they are just so energized because they’ve been working on solar electric propulsion, trying to get it up to about 40 kilowatts, and this mission gives it a real purpose.

There is a lot of capability out there that is exciting to draw together for this purpose. It will be fascinating to see the new technologies involved and the kind of capability they gives. It’s relevant not only for potential asteroid mitigation in the future, but I’ve heard people say they are very excited about us driving new technologies for dealing with orbital debris [otherwise known as “space junk”].

The idea of grabbing a 1,000-ton spinning space rock, getting a hold on it, stopping it, and moving it…that seems pretty wild to me.

Yeah. And that’s one of the reasons we’re looking at getting a boulder off a larger asteroid. It might be easier because they’re not spinning as fast, the scientists tell me.

Is NASA directly exploring any asteroid-deflection concepts using the same kinds of technology?

NASA’s asteroid grand challenge could come back with some specific proposals in that regard. But for NASA itself, other than capturing an asteroid to tow it to trans-lunar space, we don’t have specific deflection proposals yet.

Is asteroid deflection even a clear part of NASA’s mandate? Is it something the agency would be allowed to do, politically?

The national space policy of 2010 laid out NASA’s role. We’re not the operational ones, but we can drive the technology to do these things. Until now we didn’t have the missions and budget to do it, so we hadn’t been doing it. The Asteroid Redirect Mission allows us to do that so that others agencies, when they need it, can potentially use that technology in the future. We’re not saying, “Oh my gosh, it’s like in the movies when the president calls NASA because an asteroid is headed for New York City (since they always are).” I love those kind of movies because I can go, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen.” My kids are all, “Oh, mom.” But really, our role is not operational, it’s to advance the technology that can be utilized.

So if a high-risk asteroid showed up, NASA would require special legal authorization to become the lead agency in deflecting it?

Yeah. We do not have that laid out. There’s a United Nations committee on the peaceful uses of outer space and there are—depending on timing—all kinds of scenarios for governance relating to these decisions. Obviously the countries and organizations that have the capability would be the ones called on. I’ve always felt it would be an international effort and we would just be one voice in a lot.

It seems like there’s a huge disconnect between the popular fascination with asteroids and the modest efforts NASA has been authorized to undertake. What do you make of that?

Frankly I think that we need to catch up with public culture. NASA’s used to being defined by exploration. And we look at Apollo as our shining time, when we were the pop culture. We were the best brand in the world. With this Asteroid Redirect Mission, we have an opportunity to align again with the public’s views, to show them, wow, NASA has envisioned what people on this planet should be prepared to do in order to protect civilization.

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Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.

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