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Asteroid inspection
In this artist’s conception, two astronauts make their way between their Orion capsule and a piece of an asteroid that’s been captured by a robotic spacecraft. (NASA via YouTube)

House Republicans are voicing renewed doubts about NASA’s plan to have astronauts study a piece of an asteroid – a turn of events that was expected for the transition to the Trump administration.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM, was a trademark space initiative for President Barack Obama but has drawn GOP criticism for years. Critics saw the mission as an ill-planned detour on the road to the moon or Mars.

As currently conceived, the mission calls for a robotic spacecraft to visit a near-Earth asteroid, pull off a piece and bring it back to lunar orbit for study by a crew of astronauts in the mid-2020s.

NASA says the mission would serve as practice for a crewed journey to Mars and could serve as a test for diverting killer asteroids in the future. But leading House Republicans voiced skepticism about the mission’s utility in a letter sent to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden today.

The letter was signed by Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, as well as Brian Babin, R-Texas, chairman of the space subcommittee.

Smith and Babin took issue with a recent NASA news release saying that the scientific benefits of the asteroid mission were confirmed in a task force report.

“This press release is particularly peculiar, as it implies that the ARM has gained acceptance by advisory bodies,” Smith and Babin wrote. “NASA plans to issue contracts for ARM in a few short months. As the incoming administration evaluates ARM, it would benefit from clear guidance from both NASA and its advisory bodies. Similarly, it should be unencumbered by decisions made in the twilight of this administration’s term.”

Smith and Babin pointed to questions that have been raised in the past about the mission’s merits, and called upon Bolden to provide all of the documentation associated with preparation of the report and the news release by Dec. 13.

Also today, President-elect Donald Trump’s transition website posted word that Christopher Shank would be part of the space agency’s “landing team.” Such teams facilitate the handover from one administration to the next.

Shank was most recently the policy and coalitions director for the House Science Committee, and previously served as Smith’s deputy chief of staff. He was part of NASA’s leadership team during the George W. Bush administration.

Mark Albrecht, who was executive director of the White House National Space Council during the George H.W. Bush administration, was named to Trump’s landing team for the Department of Defense.

Shank has not commented on how NASA’s role might change, but in the past, advisers to Trump have said the space agency would be refocused on deep-space exploration. Commercial space ventures are likely to get a bigger role in logistics for the International Space Station, in line with current trends.

Plans for lunar exploration and settlement are likely to get more attention, while NASA’s role in Earth science and particularly climate science is expected to be de-emphasized. Some Earth observation projects could be shifted over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which already partners with NASA on missions such as the recently launched GOES-R weather satellite.

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