Garver: Overwhelming Response to Asteroid Mission

Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver
Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver

Last week, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver met with reporters after giving a keynote address at the NewSpace 2013 Conference in San Jose, Calif.

In this excerpt from the discussion, Garver makes some opening remarks about NASA’s proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission and its Grand Challenge to protect the Earth from asteroid impacts before taking questions.

Lori Garver: As we’ve announced today, we are really excited about the overwhelming response to the RFI because we have ourselves, we believe, not only a mission but the grand challenge that does offer opportunities for space development and for our space program that are so aligned with the nation’s goals and with our existing programs.

And, of course, the NRC [National Research Council] and folks who have talked about this being a goal that did not resonate, we think you can’t really argue that when you have more than 400 entities that are interested in partnering with us on this. And I would compare that, you know, it isn’t like this is a huge budget as compared to when we do a major program and we have responses. So, for something like this where a lot of proposals are pretty unique, that’s an overwhelmingly positive response.

Q: Can you describe like the range of different organizations that have responded? Have they been big companies, universities, have they been all over the place?

Garver: All of that. Large companies, small companies, international both governments as well as industry. So, there is interest beyond this country. I think there are about 14 porposals from outside the United States. We have non-profits, entities and individuals.

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Q. How much private contributions is NASA looking to be able to leverage off of that? Do you have any ideas on that?

Garver: We would not limit that. Of course, you know that on the observation side, there’s already a lot of activity and investment in that area. And not just NASA [but] outside the U.S. as well, but companies, B-612, Planetary Resources have raised money already. So, we don’t want to limit it as we would never do that with our other programs as well. What we want to do is align what NASA does to, of course, make sure that we’re not in competition with somebody that’s willing to use their own money doing it, but that we are advancing the programs in a way that really allow for greater outside investment.

Q. What’s the next step? You have the 400 plus responses now in hand. What’s the next step in going through those and either vetting them or opting which ones to do?

Garver: Folks are going through them now, while we continue to evaluate the baseline asteroid retrieval mission. I know next week there is a mission formulation review, an MFR on that, that is going to take into account, a first look at these responses. All of this is planned for a Fall workshop, I think September, I don’t know that we have a date yet, that will be our next step in at that time being able to talk to the communities that have proposed about the path forward and what we received and what we think has the best chance for success.

Q. Now do you think that the RFI responses and this baseline review will do anything to help win over support in Congress, which has been very skeptical, particularly in the House?

Garver: I think it’s unfair to say Congress is skeptical. You have folks like Bill Nelson and the entire United States Senate.

Q. But, I meant particularly the House.

Garver: OK. The Democratic House bill did not forbid us from having the asteroid mission, so it is a more narrow negative response. And I think, unfortunately, it is a largely partisan response. So, in that sense, it’s a challenge that maybe doing things that will not only help align the purpose of the mission more with what they have asked us to do, but doing it in creative ways. We’ll see if they’re able to be more supportive as we address the actual criticisms they have had, or if it really is just something that we’re not going to be able to get consensus on because of the partisan nature of Washington right now.

This artist's concept from 1978 shows an asteroid retrieval mission. (NASA)
This artist’s concept from 1978 shows an asteroid retrieval mission. (NASA)

Q. I think there’s a psychological issue where you had Neil and Buzz standing on the moon, and you’ll have a couple of astronauts standing on maybe a 10-meter asteroid and they’re two meters tall with the spacesuit. So, how do you overcome that sort of perception that that’s not a very important pursuit, you know, achievement?

Garver: A couple things. We really are seriously evaluating a mission that would go to a much larger asteroid instead of a small one. But, as I talk about the purposes of what we’re doing, the purpose of Apollo was to get that picture of the astronauts with the flag planted on the moon. That’s what it was about. It was about U.S. dominance, and being able to beat our enemies on it.

This is about something entirely different. This is about advancing and protecting civilization. This is about being able to connect what we’re doing for the overall planet. So, we can’t just compare the best of Apollo with this. The best of this is going to be people understanding that we are advancing our capability to protect the planet through greater observations, we are understanding asteroids so as we develop space we can utilize resources in a way that is more sustainable, and we are going to Mars, and….getting experience in living and working in deep space is something that we need to go do.

Q. Just a quick follow up. Can you explain the issue of going to a larger asteroid? Would you be bringing the whole thing back or part of it?

Garver: Part of it. What we have found is there are sort of boulders on larger asteroids that could be extracted to be moved to the trans-lunar orbit so that you can study them there. And it might allow us to be able to identify the asteroids easier. They’re larger, we are used to looking for them, and they also don’t spin as rapidly, so you’re able to do the capture possibly with technology we could develop more quickly. As well as if this is going to align with a protect the planet grand challenge, the technologies for doing something about it would be better aligned to go to a larger asteroid.

Q. What size range are we talking about? Is there any definition of the larger size?

Garver: I don’t know if there is.

Q. You mentioned the RFI for the lunar robotic lander in the talk today, and I’m wondering how that RFI and this asteroid one now. Do they complement each other? How would NASA interest in private like lunar ideas be something you could take advantage of for the larger asteroid effort as well? Or are they different kind of tacks for science?

Garver: NASA’s a large organization, and we believe that there’s many aspects to what we do. We are having a lot of success with partnering, as I mentioned in the talk, we’re real excited about all the interest. And so the three for the recent RFIs, all that I mentioned, are to try and be as responsive as we can be to outside interests that want to partner with us.

This painting depicts a mission to an Earth-approaching asteroid. (NASA)
This painting depicts a mission to an Earth-approaching asteroid. (NASA)

So, the broader commercial one is to make sure that we have the ability to work with folks on a non-exchange of funds basis to advance their objectives where they are aligned with capabilities we have. The asteroid RFI is to both grand challenge and our mission to be able to make sure we’re capturing the greatest partner ideas and we have funding in those areas that we can leverage with other entities’ ideas. And on the lunar RFI, it is to recognize the great interest not only our scientists but the private sector has utilizing resources, going back to the moon, and being able to do that in a way that is sustainable.

So, we’re not taking our eye off of the moon for asteroids, it’s related. We know that NASA should be driving the advancement of technologies, and pave the way for those who can follow and we think we’ve done that on the moon in a very big way a number of years ago, and we can capitalize on that today by aligning our programs with things that people really want to do in a sustained way on the moon.

Q. I had a quick question about the asteroid mission. You described some of the reasons for doing it, and they sounded like planetary reasons. I’m wondering what scope there is for international cooperation.

Garver: We had, as I said, more than a dozen responses to the RFI that were outside the United States. And we absolutely are open to international cooperation and partnership both with grand challenge and the mission. We know, for instance, ESA already with the service module is an integral part of the asteroid mission because we will need that with SLS and Orion to get the astronauts to it and trans-lunar space. And so, we absolutely recognize almost everything NASA does today is international, and the asteroid activities will be no different.