On Thursday, the space and research subcommittees of the House Science Committee held a joint hearing on “Exoplanet Discoveries: Have We Found Other Earths?”. Exoplanet research, as you might imagine, is not particularly controversial, and seems far removed from big issues facing NASA today on Capitol Hill. Yet, during the brief (less than one hour) hearing, some members found ways to bring up those key topics for discussion.
That started with the very first question of the hearing, by space subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) to NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld. Palazzo noted that scientists believe a telescope larger than the James Webb Space Telescope is needed to detect “biosignatures” from Earth-like exoplanets, and that such telescopes would require a heavy-lift launch vehicle like the Space Launch Systems (SLS). “How does the development of the SLS enable future exoplanet discoveries?” he asked Grunsfeld, who answered that SLS has both the capacity and the large payload fairing needed to accommodate future large telescopes. “We’re looking very favorably on the development of SLS,” Grunsfeld said.
Palazzo also brought up another issue with NASA’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal, the cuts to the agency’s education budget as part of a government-wide restructuring of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. “Are there any anticipated changes to the education and public outreach strategy” for NASA’s exoplanet program, he asked.
“The critical component in the inspiration of out next generation of explorers, scientists, engineers, and, even more important, to have an very broad, educated populace in the scientific method and basic science, is to do exciting things that produce exciting scientific results,” Grunsfeld responded. “And on that scale, we’re changing nothing.” The specific details of the STEM education plan are still under development, he said.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the ranking member of the space subcommittee, followed Palazzo by asking Grunsfeld about sequestration’s effect on exoplanet research both now and, potentially, into FY14. “There’s no question the budget environment has caused us to have to make some tough choices,” he responded. He said that while NASA selected a new exoplanet mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), last month, “we’ve had to slow the start of that mission by about six months” because of limited budgets.
“If we continue into a sequestered environment” in 2014, he warned, “then we’re going to have to look at perhaps turning off an operating observatory or cutting back further on the development of new missions.” That would include slowing down studies of using two space telescope optics systems that the NRO transferred last year to NASA.
The last member to speak at the hearing, full committee vice chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), returned to the topic of the first question: the SLS. “Do you know what the budget for the SLS launch system is?” he asked Grunsfeld. Before Grunsfeld could answer, Rohrabacher continued. “We don’t know, so you don’t know, either, frankly; that was a leading question. And if that money was going to be taken out of your budget to develop the SLS launch system, rather than go with launch systems that we’ve already got, would you be supportive of that?”
“No,” Grunsfeld responded.
“Right,” said Rohrabacher. “I just wanted to make sure these were on the record because there’s a lot of people pushing for the SLS launch system when we don’t even know what the budget is, we don’t know where the money’s coming from, and it’s really possible that if we do that, we’ll just defund all of the things the SLS is going to carry, meaning your projects.”