Members of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics expressed frustration at a hearing last month about what they and a prominent planetary scientist charged was the Obama Administration’s lack of commitment to two missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018. A senior NASA official testified that the Administration’s decision about these missions would be announced with the release of NASA’s FY 2013 budget request in early February.
Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) aptly summarized the situation in his opening remarks when he said “The conundrum now facing NASA is selecting a mission that is the next logical step in our exploration of Mars, and how to pay for it.” As is true for many of NASA’s current and future programs, money is largely the limiting factor.
Appearing before the subcommittee were James Green, Director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and Steven Squyres, Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University and Chair of the Committee on the Planetary Science Decadal Survey. The committee’s 400-page “Visions and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022” was undertaken through the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science and was released in March. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) declined an invitation to testify at this November 15 hearing.
The nature of OMB’s role in shaping NASA’s research agenda was repeatedly discussed during this one hour hearing, with several committee members asking if OMB was responsible for the lack of a firm U.S. commitment to the European Space Agency (ESA) to send missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018. The prime objective of these missions is returning a Martian sample to Earth, which Squyres called “the logical next step in Mars exploration.” An international partnership is essential to finance these flagship missions.
Green told the subcommittee that discussions between NASA and ESA are continuing “in good faith” based on a statement of intent signed in 2009, while avoiding commitments. OMB has not officially notified NASA that U.S. participation would be terminated, he said. On-going and what Green characterized as “intimate” discussions are occurring between NASA and OMB about the two missions. He spoke of the roles and responsibilities of different agencies within the federal government, describing OMB and the Office of Science and Technology’ functions in developing a budget request reflecting the President’s priorities. These priorities are implemented by NASA through its programs.
Green also spoke of the difficult budget environment, and told the subcommittee, “compromises have to be made, decisions have to be executed that are based on the Administration’s priority.” “We are eagerly awaiting what the ultimate priorities will be,” he said, which will officially become known when the FY 2013 budget request is sent to Congress in early February, adding “our path forward will be clear.” Green said OMB takes its responsibility seriously to control federal expenditures, and that to do so priorities must be set
The thought that OMB was determining future missions to Mars did not sit well with many Republican and Democratic subcommittee members. While not mentioning OMB by name, chairman Palazzo remarked that “the Administration appears to be interfering with the agency’s efforts to reach out and engage foreign governments in future flagship missions.” He cautioned, “If not resolved quickly, I am deeply worried that NASA will be viewed by our international partners as an unreliable, schizophrenic agency.” Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) expressed concern about OMB, and raised another issue – the James Webb Space Telescope:
“In order to keep the vitally important James Webb Space Telescope on track, NASA will need to find an additional $1.2 billion over the next five years from within its science and agency operations budgets. Decisions on how those science budget offsets will be made have significant implications for the future of the Mars program. Reportedly, OMB officials are overruling the scientific experts at NASA on how those offsets should best be allocated across the agency’s science programs, with the result that NASA’s long-planned joint NASA-ESA Mars program appears to be in serious jeopardy. This action by OMB is a serious cause for concern.”
Palazoo asked Squyres about what the implications would be if OMB was determining NASA’s missions. “The danger to planetary science in the United States is severe if that is the case,” he said. Squyres described the survey committee’s finding that NASA’s future planetary science program must be balanced between large flagship missions and smaller missions. He said that flagship missions that answer fundamental questions are an essential part of a balanced program. Squyres described the Administration’s support for flagship missions, and how studies are going forward. “And yet there is no commitment being made. I am perplexed,” he said.
With sharp language, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) criticized cost overruns on NASA’s programs. He decried how the initial $1.6 billion cost estimate for the James Webb Space Telescope had grown to $8.8 billion. There is a relationship between such overruns and the success of America’s space program, he said, adding “this is outrageous.” He had similar criticism for the space launch system, saying “these kind of cost overruns are killing the program.” Of note is a statement that Green made earlier in the hearing that “the Administration has stated clearly that James Webb is a priority.”
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) asked a series of questions about Pu-238. He wanted to know what the impact would be on NASA’s future missions if there is no further production of this isotope used to fuel space probes that cannot rely on solar energy. Green replied that Pu-238 is “vital to many of our missions in the future,” adding that missions included in the decadal study “will be in jeopardy” if the isotope is not produced by the end of the decade. He spoke of the excellent relationship NASA has with the Department of Energy, and estimated it will cost $70 to $90 million to produce the required amount of the isotope using the existing facilities. Action is needed as “there is a long lead time that we need to be cognizant of” he told the subcommittee.
As the hearing concluded, Squyres praised NASA for the “substantial strides” it had made in reducing the projected cost of the two missions to Mars. In his concluding remarks, Green told the subcommittee “this is really the decade for planetary scientists,” saying this is “a perfect time to get down to business.”