Culberson Pledges Planetary Science Support During Unscheduled Flyby

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WASHINGTON — In an unscheduled appearance here during a Capitol Hill advocacy meeting hosted by the Pasadena, California-based Planetary Society, the incoming chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee reiterated a promise to find more funding for NASA’s portfolio of robotic solar system missions.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) said he will make it his business in the new Congress to “help put NASA up” and give “everyone there at NASA the freedom they need to get politics out of the way.”

Culberson, a staunch advocate of robotic exploration despite his district’s proximity to the human spaceflight specialists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said it will be “a dream come true, really, that I’ve sought since I came to Congress,” to succeed retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) as NASA’s top House appropriator when the 114th Congress convenes Jan. 3.

Culberson — the only lawmaker who attended the public portion of the Planetary Society’s program in the Dirksen Senate office building here — was especially keen on funding a mission to Europa, Jupiter’s ice-encrusted moon with a subterranean ocean of briny water that many scientists believe harbors the heat and chemical elements necessary for life as we know it.

Culberson, for his part, is already a step beyond scientific skepticism.

“I’m convinced that when we discover life on another world, it will be in the oceans of Europa. I want to be there to be a part of that,” Culberson said in a two-minute speech that served as the unofficial kickoff for the society’s event.

Officially, NASA has no Europa mission on the books. However, instrument and mission studies on the so-called Clipper concept have been ongoing since 2012 at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The solar-powered Clipper ship would launch in the 2020s and enter orbit around Jupiter, where it would fly by Europa multiple times to map the icy moon in greater detail than ever before.

NASA teams have said the Clipper mission would cost about $2 billion. The White House, as part of the 2015 budget request it released in April, asked the agency to study whether the mission could be done for $1 billion. In a November meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s planetary science subcommittee, Jim Green, head of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said NASA probably could not answer important scientific questions with a $1 billion Europa orbiter.

After the White House unveiled a 2015 budget request this year that sought $15 million for Europa mission studies, Culberson bumped that figure to $100 million in the 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill that passed the full House in May. The Senate’s version of the bill, which has not made it to the floor, prescribed only $79 million for NASA’s entire outer planets program, of which Europa is only one part.

The Senate mentioned Europa by name only in the report accompanying its stalled bill, which said any mission to the icy moon should launch on the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket NASA is building.

Although the continuing resolution that has been funding the government since October is set to expire Dec. 11, the fate of the 2015 federal budget remained unclear as of press time on Dec. 5.

House Republicans at that time were still mulling a “cromnibus” (a combination of “continuing resolution” and “omnibus”) that would fund most of the federal government, including NASA, through September. If the cromnibus proves unpalatable — as it may for reasons unrelated to space — Congress may whip up another short-term continuing resolution that would freeze federal spending at 2014 levels to avoid a government shutdown.

A House aide who attended the Planetary Society event allowed that should a partial omnibus prove feasible, the $100 million Culberson wrangled for Europa would make a tempting target in conference negotiations between the House and the Senate.

Even in the House, which ultimately approved the $100 million, Wolf had to shoo away proposed amendments that would have steered all but $15 million of that amount out of NASA.

A Senate aide who attended the Dec. 2 event said appropriations staff on both sides of the Hill have “touched gloves” in preparation for conference negotiations, but that no substantial work has been done on compromise Commerce, Justice, Science language that could be folded into a partial omnibus.