WASHINGTON — In a preview of the debate that could occur if the next Congress drafts a new NASA authorization bill as expected, the incoming chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee questioned whether NASA’s stated goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid in 2025 is anything more than a detour on the way to Mars.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who come Jan. 3 will take over as chairman of the NASA oversight committee, was among several lawmakers participating in a Dec. 12 hearing here about a congressionally mandated National Research Council (NRC) report, “NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus,” released Dec. 5. The report showed NASA’s rank and file are not sold on a crewed mission to an asteroid, and that the agency generally has too much program for its $17.7 billion budget.

Smith asked a former astronaut who helped produce the report whether NASA’s plan to send crews to a yet-unspecified asteroid by 2025 should be overhauled.

“Your report showed that there is not much support in the scientific and space communities for a mission to a near-Earth asteroid in 2025,” Smith said to Ronald Sega, a former space shuttle astronaut and U.S. Air Force undersecretary who served as vice chairman of the NRC’s Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction. “Do you think we should reconsider that mission to a near-Earth asteroid?”

“The committee didn’t address that directly, but there were many questions that concerned that as the path forward,” Sega said of NASA’s plan to use a crewed asteroid mission in 2025 as a steppingstone to human exploration of Mars in the 2030s. “In addition to not being widely accepted, there were some shortcomings [about a crewed asteroid mission] noted by people who appeared before the committee.”

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, who on Dec. 5 was re-elected as the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, also was on the hunt for policy recommendations during the hearing.

“We’re not appropriators on this committee, and we’re mindful of the fact that we have very little money,” Johnson said. “But I still think that with the help of experts, we can at least lay out what we consider to be the vision for our country’s research and innovation through space research, and then allow the administration or the appropriators to determine what we can or cannot do.”

The latest NASA authorization bill, enacted in 2010, expires at the end of 2013. The bill called for NASA to build a heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew vehicle capable of taking astronauts beyond Earth orbit.

The bill also recommended an overall funding level for NASA and its various programs, but provided no actual funds. Authorization bills commonly prescribe more funding than congressional appropriators later determine is available.

“The upcoming reauthorization process … it’s not so far away,” said Marion Blakey, president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association.

It is not yet clear what the White House thinks of the NRC’s latest report, even though John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was briefed on the NRC’s findings the week of Dec. 3.

Sega told the House Science Committee that the report “was well received” by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a confidential briefing, but that Holdren and his staff “were mostly in the listening mode.”

“We await their reaction,” Sega said.

U.S. President Barack Obama proposed the 2025 asteroid mission in April 2010 during a speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Going to an asteroid, he argued, would be better preparation for manned Mars missions than going back to the Moon, a primary NASA objective under Obama’s predecessor.



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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...