WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers chided the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Nov. 15 for refusing to commit to a joint Mars sample-return precursor mission with Europe that, according to a prominent planetary scientist, appears to fit within NASA’s budget constraints.
“There is a widely held perception that NASA is no longer in charge of developing its programs and is instead being directed by OMB on which programs to pursue,” Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, said during a hearing on NASA’s planetary science program.
The hot topic of the hearing was ExoMars, a joint effort with the European Space Agency () that includes a rover to be launched in 2018 that would, among other things, collect and store martian soil samples for return to Earth at some future date. NASA signed on as a full ExoMars participant in 2009, but has since had to scale back its involvement due to budget pressures.
ESA has asked NASA to clarify its commitment to ExoMars in recent months but the U.S. space agency has been unable to do so. Palazzo and other lawmakers voiced frustration with the situation during the hearing.
“It would be helpful to hear from OMB directly about why things are being held up, and who’s holding them up,” Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said. “Scientists at NASA want to do the mission. [The European Space Agency], they want to do the mission. Congress hasn’t prohibited it.”
Steven Squyres, a Cornell University astronomy professor and chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, said cooperation with ESA makes the mission affordable.
“In my view, the publicly available budget guidelines that have been provided to NASA by the Office of Management and Budget are sufficient to allow the agency to carry out the Mars sample collection and caching mission,” Squyres said. “The key to achieving this in an affordable way is partnership with the European Space Agency.”
Squyres, who chaired a National Research Council panel that early this year said Mars sample collection should be a top NASA priority, said he has had conversations with OMB officials regarding the U.S. commitment to ExoMars. “And in those conversations, I had been told that the administration is at this current time not ready to make such a commitment,” he said.
Squyres identified Sally Ericsson, OMB’s program associate director for natural resources, energy and science, as the official he met with.
Ericsson was invited to testify at the hearing, but did not show.
“I am not surprised, but I find it regrettable,” Palazzo said of Ericsson’s absence.
Palazzo said NASA could develop a reputation as a “schizophrenic agency” in the eyes of the international community, pledging funds to major missions and then reneging on its promises.
Margaret Reilly, an OMB spokeswoman, told Space News via email Nov. 15 that “the President’s 2013 Budget is still in development so we will refrain from commenting on internal deliberations at this time.” Reilly said OMB told Palazzo’s subcommittee that testifying about these deliberations would be “highly unusual.”
NASA’s Mars mission plans likely will be revealed with the release of the U.S. 2013 spending request in February.
NASA Administrator Charlesand ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain signed an agreement in 2009 to collaborate on an ExoMars mission that originally included a European-built telecommunications orbiter that would launch in 2016 aboard a NASA-provided Atlas 5 rocket, and two Mars rovers, one each from ESA and NASA, that would launch in 2018 aboard another Atlas 5. It was during this second mission that the agencies planned to collect and cache soil samples for later return to Earth.
But NASA, which like all U.S. agencies is under pressure to reduce spending, informed ESA this year that it would not be able to provide its own rover for the 2018 mission; the agencies are now pursuing a jointly built rover, design details of which are to be determined. In September, NASA informed ESA it could not commit to launching the 2016 orbiter, prompting ESA to ask Russia to provide the launch in exchange for full participation in ExoMars, with a decision expected in January.
Squyres said he was “perplexed” that OMB is still withholding approval for Mars sample-collection mission, which he and other scientists on the National Research Council’s Planetary Science Decadal Survey identified as NASA’s top priority for flagship class missions. The decadal survey was released in March.
James Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, stopped short of blaming OMB for the current uncertainty surrounding ExoMars, but acknowledged that the White House will pursue its own priorities in an austere budget environment.
“We recognize, in this environment of the difficult budget situation that we’re in, that compromises have to be made and decisions executed based on the administration’s priority,” Green said during the hearing. “OMB has not canceled, officially, the  or  missions,” he noted.