When the administration released its fiscal year 2014 budget proposal last week, Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science Committee, expressed some skepticism about NASA’s new asteroid initiative contained in it, including plans to redirect a small near Earth object to lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts. “Seemingly out of the blue, this mission has never been evaluated or recommended by the scientific community and has not received the scrutiny that a normal program would undergo,” he said in a statement.
In a hearing on the overall White House R&D budget request earlier this week, Smith again raised questions regarding whether an asteroid mission made sense. “Beyond low Earth orbit of the station, where are the next destinations for our astronauts to explore?” Smith asked in his opening statement. “Is an asteroid the next destination, as the President suggested three years ago? Or is the Earth’s Moon a more compelling place for American astronauts to return, rather than finding an asteroid to pull into the Moon’s orbit?”
The first question Smith posed to the hearing’s sole witness, presidential science advisor John Holdren, was about that mission, citing last December’s report by a National Research Council committee that found little enthusiasm for an asteroid mission within or outside NASA. “It seems to me that most of the scientific community woud prefer some form of a return mission to the Moon. Why wouldn’t we follow their advice?” Smith asked Holdren.
“I think the situation has changed in a number of important respects since the National Research Council report which you quote,” Holdren responded. What’s changed, he said, is that NASA has developed “an extraordinarily ingenious and cost-effective new approach to that mission” by bringing an asteroid close to Earth. “Now we’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm for it.”
Smith wasn’t convinced, though, claiming that the mission hadn’t appeared in previous studies by the scientific community (although studies like the planetary science decadal reports typically don’t examine human missions, which are funded outside of NASA’s science program.) “It is a new mission, maybe we need to wait and see how it is received by the scientific community,” he said. “It just seems to me to be a little bit of an afterthought.”
Smith’s skepticism about NASA’s current direction in human spaceflight carried over to an op-ed he wrote in Thursday’s issue of the Houston Chronicle. “[O]ther nations are again accelerating investments in space, while our own human space program is without a clear mission,” he argued. “If China lands a man on Mars before the U.S., it would be devastating to our standing in the global community.” (China has no announced plans for a human Mars mission, and only vague plans at best for human missions to the Moon some time in the 2020s.)
Smith said, though, that NASA will not “defy budget gravity and somehow get an increase when everyone else is getting cut” and, therefore, needs to spend its existing budget more effectively. “President Obama should work with Congress to provide a vision for the agency. In order to succeed, NASA needs continuity of vision and consistency in its budget.”