Trump could replace Obama’s asteroid catcher with a SpaceX-backed mission to Mars

Donald trump move to mars spacex nasa getty shutterstock business insider illustration
President-elect has said a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s would be ‘wonderful.’ Getty Images/Shutterstock/NASA; illustration by Dave Mosher/Business Insider

When Donald Trump is sworn in on January 20, there’s a good chance he could scrap one of President Obama’s boldest visions for NASA: the asteroid redirect mission, or ARM.

ARM would ostensibly launch a robotic probe to an asteroid in 2023, capture the space rock, and tow it near the moon. Next, astronauts would ride NASA’s shiny new Space Launch System and Orion space capsule (which aren’t finished yet) to visit and dig into the asteroid sometime in 2025.

But ARM’s slipping deadlines, ballooning costs, redundancy with the recently launched asteroid-sampling OSIRIS-REx probe, and seeming incongruence with the space agency’s larger ambitions to send people to Mars will almost certainly doom the mission, Eric Berger reported for Ars Technica in February. (The Trump-friendly House Committee on Science, Space and Technology also recently sent an unfriendly letter about ARM to NASA, and it appears to be yet another presumed nail in ARM’s coffin.)

So what could astronauts do instead under a Trump-controlled NASA?

Physicist and former astronaut John Grunsfeld, who recently retired as the leader of NASA’s science mission directorate, is pitching a popular idea involving a retrieving a sample of Martian soil, as Berger reported on Monday.

Grunsfeld’s Mars mission would send a satellite into Martian orbit and an uncrewed space capsule to the surface. Though it stops short of involving astronauts, it could check all sorts of necessary boxes to send people onto the red planet in the future, including:

  • mapping all of Mars’ water reservoirs for future crewed missions
  • further test solar electric propulsion (SEP), a highly efficient technology that can vastly reduce the launch weight of a spacecraft
  • establish high-speed data connectivity around Mars with a new satellite
  • pick up soil samples collected by NASA’s upcoming nuclear-powered Mars 2020 rover
  • prove a round-trip to the red planet is possible and survivable

…and, importantly and ultimately:

  • open a destination for astronauts that’s actually a priority for NASA at large (and Trump)
A computer rendering of SpaceX’s Red Dragon capsule landing on Mars. SpaceX Photo on Flickr

What’s more, Grunsfeld’s presumed mission would line up with the plans of SpaceX and its founder, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is hellbent on colonizing Mars — and sooner rather than later.

Musk has said he’ll initially land Red Dragon space capsules on the surface. Although those spacecraft are being designed for people, Musk noted there’s plenty of room for a rover and other science experiments.

That’s probably why Grunsfeld envisions contracting the company to send a small rover and sample-returning rocket. His rover would grab Mars 2020’s samples, lug them up to his satellite’s SEP-powered module in Martian orbit, and bring the rocks and dirt home for analysis by 2025.

Will Trump go for it? Business Insider contacted a representative of Trump’s transition team to ask as much, but we did not immediately receive a response.

However, Trump said during the election that a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s would be “wonderful” and, per a Nov. 14 Forbes article by Bruce Dorminey, his transition team is currently looking at (and past) the planet:

“‘The specifics of missions will be determined within the overall goal of human exploration of the solar system, but clearly, the long-term, overall goal of Trump space policy anticipates human exploration far beyond low-Earth orbit and even beyond Mars,’ former Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Robert Walker and a senior advisor to the Trump campaign, told [Dorminey].”

Gunsfeld’s roadmap could be just the kind of no-nonsense plan Trump’s NASA is looking for.

Read the full story about Grunsfeld’s Mars mission idea at Ars Technica.

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