The space subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee is holding a hearing today on “Exploring Mars and Beyond: What’s Next for U.S. Planetary Science?”. Appearing before the committee are Jim Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, and Steve Squyres, the chair of the most recent planetary science decadal survey (and new chairman of the NASA Advisory Council). The hearing announcement mentions “Additional Witnesses TBA”, but with just a few hours before the 10 am hearing, that appears increasingly unlikely. (Or not: this morning they added another witness, Sally Ericsson, Program Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy, and Science at OMB, listing her as “invited”.)
The focus of the hearing appears to be on the uncertain long-term plans for NASA’s planetary exploration efforts, particularly when it comes to Mars. The hearing charter brings up several recent issues, including NASA’s decision not to launch a European Mars orbiter in 2016 (contrary to a previous agreement between NASA and ESA to do so, as part of broader Mars exploration cooperation) and potential changes to a planned 2018 Mars mission that is intended to be the first step for a Mars sample return effort. Other potential “flagship” missions, like a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, will also be the subject of discussion.
In Monday’s issue of The Space Review, I discuss some of those recent concerns, including the NASA decision not to launch ESA 2016 Mars mission and concerns—some realistic, some more hyperbolic—about the long-term future of NASA’s planetary exploration work. At a panel session earlier this month on Capitol Hill organized by The Mars Society and The Planetary Society, speakers discussed the importance of Mars and other planetary and astronomy missions (including the James Webb Space Telescope), but admitted that finding the funding for all of those missions would be difficult in the current fiscal environment, where an overall increase in NASA’s budget appears unlikely.