U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is JPL’s man in Washington. The seven-term congressman has represented the Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory — the crown jewel of NASA’s planetary science program — since 2001. Long the best-funded division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, planetary science ceded that position to the Earth Science Division in 2009, bottoming out in 2013 a little below $1.3 billion. 

Schiff, a member of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee since 2007, has been fighting the last few years to restore NASA’s planetary science budget to $1.5 billion — the division’s average annual appropriation for most of the past decade. Schiff and other pro-planetary science appropriators had their work cut out for them when President Barack Obama proposed cutting the division’s 2013 budget back to $1.1 billion, a 20 percent reduction that didn’t take into account sequestration — the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts taking effect that year. By the time the dust finally settled on last year’s drawn-out appropriations process, planetary science ended up with $1.27 billion — still a cut, but not as deep as what the White House proposed.

Schiff’s effectiveness as a champion for JPL and its planetary science-heavy portfolio gets a big boost from an unlikely ally, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), a fellow subcommittee member whose congressional district includes a big chunk of Houston — the epicenter of NASA’s human spaceflight program. But Culberson is a self-proclaimed space science nut with a soft spot for robotic explorers, so when it comes to setting NASA budget priorities, he and Schiff often are on the same page.

The duo’s fingerprints can be found on the 2015 NASA spending bill that cleared the House Appropriations Committee in early May: Planetary science would get $1.45 billion, about $170 million more than the White House requested.

Schiff won’t be satisfied, though, until planetary science gets back to at least $1.5 billion a year — a small price to pay, he says, for the sorts of missions that have “really carried us through the dark days of some of the problems in manned spaceflight,” such as those that followed the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, midway through Schiff’s sophomore term. Just months after the accident, NASA launched the Mars Exploration Rover twins, Spirit and Opportunity, to the red planet. The agency has since lost contact with Spirit, but Opportunity is still going strong. 

Schiff, who is candid about his displeasure that NASA’s 2015 budget request did not include unequivocal support for continuing that still-viable rover’s mission, spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

Describe the state of NASA’s planetary science program, as you see it.

I think that if you look at the budget fight we’re having right now over extending planetary science missions that continue to produce good science, like Opportunity and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, it tells you in microcosm a lot about the problem we’re having with planetary science funding in general. That it’s even a question if we extend the life of a mission producing good science means that we’re not making an adequate investment in the overall portfolio. I can only think that if we’re even contemplating curtailing any of the missions, it means that we have done a very poor job on our overall level of planetary science funding. 

Practically speaking, what can you do about that when there does not appear to be any new funding available for NASA?

I think it’d be practical to try to achieve the same level of planetary science funding, proportionately, as planetary science has enjoyed in the past. 

Do you mean the 2012 budget of $1.5 billion?

I think that ought to be our initial goal. Obviously, that can’t be a static number because back when we last had $1.5 billion it was part of a funding profile that would continue to grow over the years. I’d like to get us back to a place where we get that $1.5 billion number and put planetary science on a sustainable path. That would allow continued investment in these missions, and it wouldn’t seriously degrade or undermine other parts of the portfolio. I think we actually need to look at whether we’re sequencing our NASA investments in the right way.

What do you mean by that?

Is it so important to invest as substantially as we are in a heavy-lift launch capability when we don’t have anywhere to take the heavy lift to yet? And some of that funding can be used to keep some of the planetary science decadal survey priorities on track. So we’re not talking about a major reconfiguration of some of these other priorities. What’s small in their budget may be very large in the planetary science portfolio. I think that’s a part of what we need to look at if we’re going to maintain our pre-eminence in planetary science. 

To be clear, you’re not talking about canceling the Space Launch System and Orion programs, are you?

No. But in other words, we’re trying to keep the Mars 2020 rover with a 2020 date. The year 2020 is a very favorable launch window. It will allow us to carry heavier instruments on that craft than if it gets pushed back two years. It would be, I think, the worst form of planning if we invested so much in SLS before we have a place to take SLS to, and the result is we can’t launch a Mars mission at the time it’s ready to go. So that’s what I mean by proper sequencing various components of the NASA portfolio.

What makes you think Mars 2020 might miss its launch window? 

If you look at how much we’re going to invest in Mars 2020 this year and next year, and in the years leading up to 2020, the curve is a very parabolic shape so that the funding goes up much more dramatically in the last stages of development. Some of this is to be expected, but if you weren’t sure that you really wanted to go ahead with the project, you would back-load the funding so that you could pull the plug later, or delay the project later and not have put such a large down payment into the project. If Mars 2020 had a more even funding curve where we had a stronger investment up front, I’d have more confidence that we’re really serious about the 2020 date. The scuttlebutt and the suspicious back-loading of the funding make me concerned that there may be more to this than meets the eye.

Where did you hear this scuttlebutt?

Within NASA. And it may be just what people fear, but unfortunately, as they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that everybody isn’t out to get you. Planetary scientists have taken it on the chin enough in the last several years where their concerns have often been very well placed. 

Parts of NASA, including JPL, had been at work on a $2 billion Europa Clipper concept when the White House announced this year that NASA could start early work on a $1 billion Europa mission. What do you make of that?

I hate to hear NASA talking about an end to flagship missions. To me that sounds like we are lowering our horizons, or that we don’t feel like we’re capable of doing the big things anymore. What gets people excited about science and about NASA is doing the big, hard things, and they are often not inexpensive. I want to keep our ideas big and our destinations challenging. Those of us who are space enthusiasts are going to have to make the case for bigger overall NASA budgets and a bigger piece for planetary science in the NASA portfolio. 

Proponents of the heavy-lift SLS rocket might also say that big, hard things are often expensive.

 Some of the expenditures we’re making, as I mentioned, I don’t think are sequenced properly within the limitations of what we’re able to accomplish. And they are driven more by local interests than they are by good, overall NASA policy. We need to make sure that we adequately sequence our missions so that we can achieve what’s doable in each part of the portfolio when it’s doable and not invest a lot of time and money and energy in things that won’t be ready to take us anywhere before we’re ready to go.

Speaking of SLS and Orion, what do you make of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission? Visiting a captured asteroid in lunar orbit is the first destination NASA has really proposed for those vehicles.

I think it’s exciting to contemplate going somewhere we haven’t gone before and the science that would come out of that. It’s something I support, but I want to make sure it doesn’t cannibalize too much of the rest of NASA’s budget so that we’re not able to go forward with other very important priorities.

Do you think NASA’s approach to the international space station and the commercial crew program ought to be supported in future appropriations bills?

I’ve always been a supporter of the commercial spaceflight program, both commercial cargo and commercial crew, for the main reason that I think the commercial sector, the private sector, can do this cost-effectively and get us to places that we’ve been to repeatedly and therefore allow NASA to do the really hard stuff. I think it’s a worthwhile division of labor. I think those in the commercial crew business have shown pretty phenomenal results. SpaceX, just to name one, has done an amazing job. I was out to see their work a year or so ago. The rapid success of their efforts is really extraordinary. The commercial crew sector has been pretty well funded. They’ve never had to fight for their resources the way other parts of the portfolio have. On the planetary science front, there are a number of advocates among the planetary science crowd that feel they don’t have the industrial heft behind them that some of the other parts of the NASA portfolio have.

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...