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House Appropriators Fight for Planetary Science

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Mar-2012
Updated: 21-Mar-2012 07:43 PM

The planetary science community got what it wanted today at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on NASA's FY2013 budget request -- strong opposition to proposed cuts to NASA's planetary program.  The chairman and members of the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, on a bipartisan basis, lambasted the Obama Administration's proposed cuts especially to Mars exploration.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden valiantly tried to convince the subcommittee, which is the most influential entity in the House in determining how much money NASA gets and how it is spent, that NASA is not walking away from Mars exploration. His arguments only inflamed the debate, however.

In a heated exchange with Rep. Steven Schiff (D-CA), who represents the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that builds many of NASA's planetary spacecraft, Bolden insisted that the Mars program is in good shape.  The Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) is enroute to the red planet and another mission, MAVEN, is scheduled for launch next year, he reminded the subcommittee.  They will join a rover and two orbiters already there.  Although NASA had to back away from plans to build two Mars probes with the European Space Agency (ESA) for launch in 2016 and 2018, NASA is now developing plans for a smaller Mars mission that could be launched in 2018 or 2020, he said.  Furthermore, he stressed, NASA never committed to the missions with ESA, only to discussions, and there are many other areas in which NASA and ESA continue to cooperate.  He also pushed back against the idea that overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope are the cause of the cuts to Mars exploration, a charge commonly made by the planetary science community.   He and other NASA officials have been insisting since the budget was released on February 13 there is no direct connection.

Schiff and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) were having none of it.  Schiff assiduously attempted to get Bolden to say that the Mars cuts were imposed on NASA by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but Bolden insisted the decision was his.   He also admitted that he had not known that the 2016 and 2018 missions with ESA would not actually have returned a sample to Earth.   The 2018 mission only would have collected and stored (cached) samples, but could not return them to Earth -- a hugely expensive proposition.   Bolden said that everyone apparently knew that but him.  He made the same admission at the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Science Committee meeting two weeks ago where he revealed that he had a long conversation with then OMB Director (now White House Chief of Staff) Jack Lew while under the misimpression that the 2016 and 2018 missions would return a sample, an effort that would indeed have significant budget implications. 

Bolden thus took full responsibility for the decision not to proceed with the 2016 and 2018 missions, but insisted that the U.S. Mars exploration program is strong and maintains U.S. leadership.  Schiff vehemently disagreed and proclaimed that he could not support a budget that in his view means America's days of leadership in space science are limited and tells ESA it cannot depend on U.S. cooperation while at the same time China is "ascendant" on Mars exploration and we are "tantalizingly close to finding life."

Culberson was just as adamant.   "I am quietly grieving for our country," he said, blaming the Obama White House for a lack of interest in NASA and the space program.  Though acknowledging the difficult budget situation, he called the cut to planetary exploration "devastating" and in violation of the FY2012 appropriations act that said NASA had to implement the recommendations of the 2011 National Research Council Decadal Survey for planetary sciences.   Bolden firmly countered that NASA is following the law and implementing the Decadal Survey as best it can and the two of them simply would have to agree to disagree.  Culberson ended by saying that "we'll restore the vision and excitement" of Mars exploration "despite efforts of this Administration to throw a wet blanket over it."   Subcommittee ranking member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) later chided Culberson for turning it into a partisan issue.   Asserting that he agrees completely with Schiff's arguments in favor of restoring funds for Mars exploration, Fattah added that Culberson's attack on the Administration was "not productive."

JWST was another space science program that prompted many questions from subcommittee chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA).   Wolf revealed that NASA is asking Congress to remove language that was included in last year's appropriations bill that limits how much money can be spent on the program.   Last year, the House Appropriations Committee recommended that JWST be terminated because of its overruns.   That decision was reversed in negotiations with the Senate and Congress added money to JWST to ensure that the telescope is launched in 2018, but Congress capped development costs at $8 billion and life-cycle costs at $8.7 billion.   Wolf asked Bolden if the request to remove the cost cap language indicates that JWST will cost more than that.  Bolden seemed surprised by the question and said he could not remember the rationale for asking that the language be removed.  He assured Wolf that he intends to abide by the cap.   Wolf asked what lessons were learned from the JWST "debacle" and Bolden said there were many, mostly in terms of management changes.  

Wolf also made clear his own support for planetary exploration, following on a letter he sent to Bolden last week disapproving a NASA reprogramming request for Mars exploration because he believes the issue needs further debate.  The committee has not publicly released the letter, but Aviation Week & Space Technology published a story about it.

Wolf also expressed concern about the commercial crew program, continued opposition to space cooperation with China and concern that China is trying to hack into NASA's computers, and misgivings over whether the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) is meeting its obligations to find users for the International Space Station.


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