House Lawmakers Agree on Little, but Concur NASA Needs Change To Get to Mars

by

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on the U.S. House Science Committee doubled down on partisan talking points about NASA’s human spaceflight program in a June 25 hearing called to discuss a blue-ribbon panel’s finding that the United States is not on a path to put astronauts on Mars in the 2030s.

As they have for more than a year, committee Republicans complained the Obama administration has deprioritized NASA’s human spaceflight program in favor of climate change research, while Democrats accused their GOP colleagues of hamstringing the whole agency by playing favorites with NASA programs instead of finding more funding for all of them.

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and fellow Republicans seized on the recent congressionally ordered National Research Council (NRC) report, “Pathways to Exploration — Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration,” as proof that NASA’s human spaceflight program is being short-changed by the White House.

“The Obama administration continues to advocate increased climate change funding at NASA at the expense of other priorities such as space exploration” Smith said. He also lamented President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel the Constellation Moon-exploration program, which a separate blue-ribbon panel in 2009 concluded was unsustainable under NASA’s projected budgets.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said the NRC report was an “important wake-up call,” but derided Smith’s jabs at the Obama administration’s human spaceflight plans as “comical.” Johnson bashed Smith and committee Republicans for their attempt last year to authorize future NASA appropriations at levels no higher than allowed by the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration — the provision in the Budget Control Act of 2011 that aims to cut $1.2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years.

“We are realistically in a financial bind, but we cannot shut the door to our future,” Johnson said, appealing to Republicans to back up their rhetoric about embracing a new pathway to Mars with the funding necessary to tread that path.

On the political front, Johnson got a little support from witness Mitch Daniels, the former White House Office of Management and Budget director and co-chairman of the NRC Committee on Human Spaceflight that wrote the report at the center of the June 25 hearing.

However, Daniels went only so far as to say that the Obama administration’s plan to reach Mars — developing space technology adaptable to many missions but tailor-made for none — is no better than the Constellation program NASA was pursuing when he served as budget director under then-President George W. Bush.

“More money spent in the way we’ve been doing for the last several administrations probably doesn’t advance things very far,” Daniels said.

Daniels was one of only two witnesses at the hearing. The other was his co-chairman, Jonathan Lunine, an astronomer and professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Lunine, as he did when the NRC unveiled its report June 4, urged NASA to abandon its capabilities-based approach.

He also singled out the Obama administration’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission — a plan to robotically nudge an asteroid about 10 meters in diameter into a lunar storage orbit where astronauts could visit it by 2025 using the Orion crew capsule and Space Launch System rocket NASA is building — as an inefficient use of the agency’s resources.

“Some of the technologies developed for [the Asteroid Redirect Mission] are what we call dead-end technologies that are not useful, as far as the [NRC] committee can see, in the succeeding steps to going toward Mars,” Lunine said.

Since the White House unveiled the Asteroid Redirect Mission in 2013, Smith has dismissed it as a costly and expensive distraction and called on NASA to instead return to the lunar surface — a destination the NRC report lauded as attractive to international partners, and useful for testing technology needed for a Mars landing.

No NASA official was invited to testify at the hearing, although senior agency officials filled in some of the blanks on the agency’s road map to Mars in a June 24 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee. Agency officials said Mars’ moon Phobos might make a good steppingstone to Mars, and that NASA is working on a concept for a crewed Phobos exploration vehicle based on technology now being developed for the proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Meanwhile, at the hearing, a Republican and a Democrat found some common ground worrying about China, a nation with which the NRC concluded NASA should cooperate to bolster chances of landing crews on Mars in the first half of this century.

“Doesn’t the fact that China now is the world’s worst human rights abuser [and] is committing acts of aggression all along its Pacific rim … sort of affect our decision as to whether we’re going to cooperate with that country?” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) asked.

Rohrabacher likened cooperation with China today to cooperation with Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II. “What if somebody said in 1937, ‘We really want to develop these rockets to go to the Moon, and this guy in Germany has really got a good rocket program, maybe we should cooperate with him?’” Rohrabacher said.

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) expressed concern that working with Beijing might give the Chinese government opportunities to steal U.S. space technology.

“I recently visited China, and I was concerned,” Wilson told Daniels and Lunine. “What lessons are there in our current [international] collaboration that we can apply to future collaboration to ensure intellectual property and classified information is adequately protected?”

“Ultimately, if the nation decides China is a partner of value in this major human endeavor, the program would have to be designed to safeguard our technologies,” Lunine said. He told the committee that “we’re likely to see collaboration between China and some of our traditional international partners” on future space activities.

Absent from the June 25 hearing was any detailed discussed of what it would cost for NASA to meet Obama’s challenge to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. Daniels and Lunine both said a Mars surface expedition would require an investment of hundreds of billions of dollars over several decades, with annual budget increases for NASA that outpace inflation by about 2 percent.

However, Daniels said, budgets should be a secondary consideration, at best. NASA first must commit to the NRC recommendation to develop a list of specific steppingstone missions that lead to Mars, along with a list of mission-specific technologies required for those missions. With a strategy in mind, the agency, the White House and Congress can then worry about how to pay for it.

Without agreement on such a strategy, “you might as well face up that Mars itself is unrealistic,” Daniels said.