Though a lot of people in the space community criticize the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as an unhelpful distraction, I think that there is a secret strategy which keeps it on the books. My theory is that ARM is a sacrificial lamb presented to appease the next administration's team who will be tasked with cutting old programs to make room for new programs. In the upcoming year, the incoming administration will cut ARM and crystalize the amorphous Evolvable Mars campaign into a more substantive plan. Whether or not this plan involves Mars is not important, what is important is that it still involves SLS and Orion.
As evidenced by this week's three briefings on ARM from NASA, the strategy may be to put ARM in the spotlight so all criticism falls on it instead of SLS and Orion. This is obviously speculative and close to a conspiracy theory, but I think it's a fun exercise in political maneuvering.
Let's sum up why ARM is considered a distraction. There is little scientific merit in retrieving samples from an asteroid since we already have plenty of asteroid material on earth for study in the form of meteorites. There is little technical merit in bringing a boulder into lunar orbit without an associated piece of hardware for testing resource extraction. ARM is supposed to be testing SEP, but SEP is already in use in Earth orbit so no technology demonstrator mission is needed. There is little political or economic stimulus incentive because there are no announced international or public-private partnerships for asteroid mining contracts in the works as far as I know. Asteroid mining is not a necessary technology to reach Mars, anyway. So why is NASA spending the effort on this custom-built, single-use spacecraft, when it could be building some other vehicle with a clearer purpose?
It's pretty obvious that ARM should be cancelled, and NASA knows it. They also know how Washington works, and they are using this knowledge to force a future compromise which will keep their pet projects, SLS and Orion, funded while ARM gets cancelled. NASA knows that transitions take time and effort, and the next administration may not have time to do the technical due-diligence, paperwork, and "networking" required to cancel the entire Journey To Mars architecture and also come up with a totally new plan. So NASA offers ARM up as a gambit, knowing full well that the cancellation of ARM fits neatly into a plan that emphasizes more effective usage of SLS and Orion, a plan that is trivial to create compared to writing all the new contacts and agreements necessary for a new exploration architecture.
But if it's so hard to make a new program from scratch, why is NASA worrying about SLS and Orion, and why is this gambit necessary? To answer that, we just got a glimpse of exactly what NASA does not want when Blue Origin failed to include SLS on their New Glenn infographic.
NASA knows what perils lie ahead for SLS and Orion, but they are showing they know how Washington works and are willing to try their hand at political manipulation for perhaps the first time in the agency's history.
Possibly. It's just a theory.