Op-ed | The Opportunity for Bipartisan Planetary Exploration

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Riding on a wave of voter discontent, the Republican Party swept the U.S. midterm elections and recaptured control of the Senate, likely creating a new arena of political conflict between Congress and the White House. But buried within this landscape of conflict lies a wellspring of bipartisan potential. The Obama administration has merely to take the first step, but if it does, the fiscal year 2016 budget request could ignite a new bipartisan era of planetary exploration.

NASA’s Planetary Science Division has suffered from deep cuts in recent years, more than any other science program within the space agency — cuts originating from within the administration. NASA has had to delay, reduce and outright cancel missions. As Europe, Russia, India and China announced ambitious plans to push their robotic probes deeper into space, NASA was forced to abandon the future exploration of nearly every corner of the solar system except for Mars and asteroids. This was a loss difficult to fully appreciate, until recent events reminded the world of the power and potential of planetary exploration.

It was Philae. Landing on a comet a mere week after the midterm elections, Philae was a phenomenon. It was splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world. Its landing was live-drawn by Randall Munroe of the exceedingly popular Web comic XKCD. It even briefly overtook Kim Kardashian as the most-discussed topic on Twitter.

Image of ESA's Philae on the surface of Comet 67P. Credit: ESA
Image of ESA’s Philae on the surface of Comet 67P. Credit: ESA

Millions of people around the world followed the landing and Philae’s brief life on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Its invasion into popular culture was a potent reminder of the power of robotic planetary exploration, and was a triumph for the European Space Agency and its steady support for solar system exploration. And while NASA helped pay for several of the instruments on Rosetta, Philae was a European success.

But success in space exploration requires steady commitment. ESA began work on Philae and its mothership, Rosetta, in 1993, launched them in 2004, and waited patiently during the 10 years it took for them to reach Comet 67P this August. A child born at the beginning of the Rosetta project would have graduated college by the time of Philae’s descent.

In contrast, just in the period of Rosetta’s journey to its comet, NASA’s Planetary Science Division saw its yearly budget collapse by nearly half a billion dollars annually, culminating in the 20 percent single-year cut proposed by the White House in 2013.

Fortunately, a bipartisan coalition in Congress has mitigated the impact of these cuts. But since Congress can only act on an annual appropriations cycle, the disconnect between administration and congressional priorities leads to long-term instability.

Space exploration doesn’t just happen. It can’t be turned on and off like a spigot. Recovery will be slow, but the administration can take the key step in restoring a balanced program by requesting a return to at least the historical levels of $1.5 billion per year in its fiscal year 2016 budget request. This would support missions to Mars and Europa and higher frequency of smaller, competed missions to all corners of the solar system. With strong bipartisan support in the House and Senate, particularly with the noted champion of planetary exploration, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), as the new chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee committee, funding would likely follow.

Key members of Congress have already signaled their support. Culberson and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) led the effort in the House to pass a NASA appropriations bill with $1.45 billion for NASA’s Planetary Science Division — significantly above the president’s request. The Senate followed suit with its own increase to planetary science. But the final fiscal year 2015 omnibus provided $1.44 billion for planetary exploration, much closer to the House’s original number and a sign of the strong bicameral, bipartisan support garnered by the program. This was the third time in as many years that Congress provided more funding to planetary science than requested by the president. No other science program was sacrificed to do so. Congress very smartly increased the top-line budget to NASA by a small amount. The political support is there.

No other program is so ripe with potential for public engagement, scientific return and the ability to utilize NASA’s other scientific and heavy-lift capabilities, yet has been so underfunded in recent years. The priorities presented in the National Research Council’s decadal survey report would ensure a spectacular series of future missions, including the first full reconnaissance of an ocean moon (Europa) and the start of a sample-return campaign from Mars. Planetary missions provide a unique case for the use of the Space Launch System’s heavy-lift capabilities to reduce travel times to the outer planets, and provide crucial ground-truth observations of our planets to inform the understanding of the myriad of exoplanetary systems being discovered.

But even more profound is that in the current political divisions of Washington, planetary science represents one of the few bastions of bipartisan agreement — a situation too rare for the administration to ignore.

Philae has once again demonstrated the far-ranging impact of bold planetary exploration. The administration can request proper funding levels at NASA, as well as a new start for Europa, to provide the stability required to keep these exciting missions (with their commensurate scientific return) coming, and find common cause with Congress in the process.

 

Casey Dreier is director of advocacy for the Planetary Society.