Press Release

Democrats Press for Clear Administration Commitment to Joint NASA-European Space Agency Mars Initiative

By SpaceRef Editor
November 15, 2011
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Democrats Press for Clear Administration Commitment to Joint NASA-European Space Agency Mars Initiative

(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing entitled, “Exploring Mars and Beyond: What’s Next for U.S. Planetary Science?” The purpose of the hearing was to receive testimony from witnesses representing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on the prospects for the future exploration of Mars and implications of the current fiscal crisis on the future of U.S. planetary science. Testifying before the Subcommittee were Dr. James Green, the Director of the Planetary Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA and Dr. Steven Squyres, the Chair of the Committee on the Planetary Science Decadal Survey of the National Academy of Sciences. OMB declined to provide a witness for the hearing. The National Academies Committee released its survey entitled Visions and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022 in March 2011, laying out a robust program for planetary exploration that includes top-priority flagship missions – including a Mars sample return mission and a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) said in her opening statement, “Over the past 15 years, NASA has carried out a systematic exploration of Mars using orbiting spacecraft, landers, and rovers. These missions have resulted in dramatic changes in our understanding of the planet, its potential to harbor life, and our ability to eventually carry out human exploration of Mars. They have also established the United States as the undisputed leader in Mars exploration. The United States is the only nation is the world that is capable of successfully landing and operating a spacecraft on Mars. Our Mars exploration program has been a scientific success story, is the envy of the world, and has inspired countless young people to pursue education and careers in science and technology.”

Later this month, NASA will launch the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), a large mission to investigate the existence of Martian habitats capable of supporting past or present life. Due to the current budgetary environment, it would be difficult for NASA to pursue another large, “flagship” planetary mission such as this in the near future without seeking partners, as it has done in the past, in its space science missions. Based on a 2009 agreement between the two agencies, there is a plan for a NASA-European Space Agency (ESA) joint Mars initiative involving Mars orbiters, landers, and rovers to be launched in 2016 and 2018, and continuing thereafter. This has become an increasingly important framework for achieving high-priority Mars science objectives, especially those recommended by the National Academies decadal survey. However, issues associated with the implementation this plan, including direction from the OMB on how NASA is to accommodate cost growth in the James Webb Space Telescope program, are putting the joint NASA-ESA Mars initiative in jeopardy.

Ms. Edwards also said, “Building on their long-standing international partnership in space science, NASA and ESA planned a joint initiative to collaborate on a series of future Mars missions. However, the status of that initiative now appears to be in question. 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.”

Dr. James Green, in response to questions from Ms. Edwards, stated that the joint Mars program is scientifically compelling and that both NASA and ESA want to carry it out.

Dr. Steven Squyres testified as to the importance of flagship missions to the future of planetary science. He said, “The ability to carry out the most challenging tasks in deep space exploration – tasks like landing and roving on Mars – is one of our nation’s scientific and technical crown jewels. If we give up that capability by abandoning planetary Flagship missions, then we do a disservice not just to ourselves, but also to future generations of American scientists, engineers, and explorers. [I]t is essential that NASA maintain this unique capability. The resources to do it within a balanced program are available. What is needed is a willingness to commit those resources to this essential task.”

After questioning the witnesses about the lack of a firm Administration commitment to the joint NASA-ESA Mars program despite a scientific consensus on the importance of the initiative, Ms. Edwards stated that the Subcommittee needed to hear from OMB as to why the joint program is being stalled.

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SpaceRef staff editor.