Administration to Announce Decision on Mars Missions in February

Print this pagePrint this page
Publication date: 
14 December 2011
Number: 
146

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.”

Main topics: