It’s not uncommon for NASA to be on the hot seat in Congressional hearings, criticized by members of Congress for what the agency is or is not doing. Yesterday, though, at a hearing of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s space subcommittee on the future of NASA’s planetary exploration programs, NASA was treated like a victim of decisions being made, or pending, by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
“On the one hand, NASA is actively seeking international partners to collaborate on future missions,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) in his opening statement. “On the other, the administration appears to be interfering with the agency’s efforts to reach out and engage foreign governments in future flagship missions.”
That alleged interference is a reference to the current state of limbo that NASA’s cooperation with ESA on 2016 and 2018 Mars missions is in, after NASA had to back out of an agreement to launch ESA’s 2016 Mars orbiter. The concern of committee members, and the planetary science community, is that OMB may treat those missions, and other large “flagship” planetary missions, as a lower priority and not seek funding for them in future budgets. An OMB official, Sally Ericsson, program associate director for natural resources, energy, and science, was invited to testify but declined, Palazzo said. (Her name was added to the public list of witnesses for the hearing only about an hour before it started.) “I am not surprised but I find it regrettable,” Palazzo said of OMB’s decision not to appear.
Steve Squyres, the Cornell University planetary scientist who chaired the most recent planetary decadal survey, one that found that a Mars rover to cache samples for later return to Earth to be its highest-priority flagship mission, said he was confused by the current situation regarding support for that mission. “I’m perplexed, sir,” he said with a sigh when asked about it by Palazzo. “I sense within the agency a strong desire to do flagship missions,” he said, citing work being done to lower the cost of the 2018 Mars rover mission. “And yet, there’s no commitment being made. I’m perplexed.”
Sqyures said later he has talked with OMB officials about the future Mars missions and making a commitment to cooperate closely with ESA. “In those conversations I have been told the administration, at this current time, is not ready to make such a commitment,” he said.
Caught in the middle of this debate was the other hearing witness, Jim Green, the director of the planetary science division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He described his role as the “advocate for planetary science” within NASA and the federal government, but acknowledged that his office and his agency have to work within “a difficult budget situation” that will require compromises. “Currently, OMB has not officially notified NASA of canceling Mars ’16 or ’18,” he said, adding that NASA meets with OMB “on a regular basis” on those missions and other issues. He later said that NASA is continuing to work with ESA on those missions based on the 2009 agreement between the two space agencies, and not because of any explicit approval from OMB.
On a separate subject, though, Green did offer a little bit of good news. Asked about efforts to restart production of plutonium-238, the isotope used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) that power some planetary missions, Green said NASA was moving forward with the Department of Energy on those plans. “We’re on the path to do that,” he said, citing funding provided to NASA (but not DOE) in draft FY12 spending bills and cooperation between the two agencies. “Production could begin within the next couple of years.”