Culberson Pledges Protection for Lunar Orbiter, Mars Rover Missions

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WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA said March 17 that he would protect two NASA planetary missions whose futures were placed in jeopardy by the administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee, said at a Space Transportation Association event here that he opposed a move by NASA to zero out funding for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Mars rover Opportunity missions in its 2016 budget request.

“You shouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep or one heartbeat’s worth of worry” about that aspect of the budget request, Culberson said. “We will absolutely make sure that they’re taken care of and funded.”

NASA declined to include any funding in its proposed 2016 budget for those two missions, which received a combined $26.4 million in fiscal year 2014. In the budget request, the agency cited the age of Opportunity, which has been on Mars since January 2004 and has recently suffered some technical problems, as a reason for not funding it. The documents offered no reason for ending LRO.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, testifying before the Senate Commerce  space subcommittee March 12, defended the decision to defund Opportunity. “We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed, because I won’t be able to put something like Insight on Mars,” he said, referring to a Mars lander mission scheduled to launch in 2016.

Since the rollout of the budget request Feb. 2, agency officials have indicated that it may be possible to continue LRO and Opportunity if funding can be found in other programs, although that decision would not come until at least this summer.

“This is tough news,” acknowledged Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division, during a “NASA Night” presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference in Houston March 16. “We’re hopeful that even under the president’s budget we may be able to move into the next fiscal year, in some ways, with forward funding for those two missions.”

Green noted that both LRO and Opportunity were also threatened with termination in the fiscal year 2015 budget request, but NASA was able to fund both missions. Asked by conference attendees why those missions were targeted with cancellation two years in a row, he suggested they were victims of tight funding as the overall planetary science program suffered cuts. “Programmatic decisions are tough,” he said.

Culberson
Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) says that planetary science advocates “shouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep” about the prospects of NASA cancelling LRO or Opportunity. Credit: SpaceNews photo by Jeff Foust

Beyond supporting LRO and Opportunity, and planetary science programs in general, Culberson said March 17 he had several other priorities for NASA’s 2016 budget, including NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion programs as well as the agency’s commercial crew contracts with Boeing and SpaceX.

“We’re going to make sure that the SLS and the Orion have everything that they need to stay on track and hopefully finish a little bit ahead of schedule,” he said. “The vital role that commercial plays in getting to low Earth orbit is going to be protected and taken care of.”

Culberson also expressed a desire to develop a decadal survey for NASA’s human spaceflight efforts, analogous to those done for NASA’s Earth and space sciences programs. “The decadal survey, in my mind, is sort of the gold standard” of developing goals and priorities, he said, adding that he’s seeking advice on how to implement that approach for human space exploration.

Culberson said he hopes his subcommittee will be able to take up a fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill by May. That bill would likely be in the “middle of the pack” of roughly a dozen appropriations bills that the full House will later debate, he said.

Culberson didn’t offer any specific estimates on the total amount of funding NASA could expect in 2016, as his subcommittee has not yet received its budget allocation from House Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). Culberson, though, was optimistic that he would get a favorable allocation. “I’m confident he’s going to take good care of us,” Culberson said of Rogers.