As NASA released a call for proposals for instruments that could fly on a future robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, some key members of Congress expressed support Tuesday for flying such a mission sooner rather than later.
“This is a wonderful crowd,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, at the beginning of an event titled “The Lure of Europa” organized by The Planetary Society that drew a standing room only crowd to the committee’s hearing room on Capitol Hill. (Many in attendance were interns, perhaps attracted by one of the events speakers, Bill Nye.) “I just wish others could see the interest that you all manifest by being here.”
Whether it was indeed Europa that lured the audience, or just a chance to take a selfie with Nye, the audience heard a case for exploring the icy Jovian moon from members of Congress and NASA representatives, one based primarily on the potential of Europa to host life. “We’re confident that Europa is the next logical place to go” after Mars in the search for life in the solar system, said NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan, one of the event’s speakers.
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), arguably the biggest supporter for Europa exploration in Congress, was even more confident than Stofan that Europa harbored life. In comments during the event, he noted that NASA had held a press event the day before talking about searching for signs of life on exoplanets outside our solar system. “We don’t need to wait to go find life in another solar system. It’s right here in our own backyard,” he said. “The oceans of Europa will literally be seething with life. It’s just irrefutable. It’s so logical, it’s so self evident.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), also expressed interest in sending a mission to Europa, even if he didn’t share Culberson’s certitude about life there. “Now, after years of struggle against shortsighted budget cuts by the administration that affect not only Europa, but a host of other NASA missions as well, it looks as if the dream is becoming a reality,” he said of a Europa mission. “Chairman [Frank] Wolf and Ranking Member [Chaka] Fattah played key roles in fighting the administration on Europa and they deserve all of our gratitude.” That’s a reference to the leadership of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, where Culberson and Schiff also serve.
Schiff and others were pleased by NASA’s announcement earlier in the day that it was releasing an announcement of opportunity (AO) for instruments that could fly on a future Europa mission. NASA has reserved $25 million that will go for initial “Phase A” studies of up to 20 instrument concepts that the agency will select by next April.
What isn’t clear, though, is what mission those instruments might eventually hitch a ride on. NASA has been studying concepts for a Europa orbiter mission as well as a “Clipper” that would perform multiple flybys of Europa, but has made no decision yet on what concept to pursue, or when it would fly. The cost of either of those missions would be in the ballpark of $2 billion.
Earlier this year, though, NASA issued a request for information about concepts for Europa missions that would cost no more than $1 billion. After Tuesday’s event, NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld, who attended the event but was not a panelist, said a number of submissions have been forwarded to the Aerospace Corporation to perform an independent cost and technical assessment to see if any could, in fact, be done for the stated price. NASA is also looking at the science that the billion-dollar mission concepts claim to do, and compare those capabilities with what the Clipper mission and other concepts can do.
Grunsfeld outlined a hypothetical scenario where a billion-dollar mission could achieve only one major scientific objective while a Clipper-like mission could do four, albeit at about twice the price. “But if you look in your wallet and you only have a billion dollars, then you have to ask, ‘Can I afford to wait or should I go now?’” he said.
Members of Congress like Culberson and Schiff, though, want to ensure that NASA has enough to do a flagship-class Europa mission. “We included language in this [appropriations] bill, and I’m proud to have been one of the drivers of that, to ensure that we have the money for the Europa flagship mission,” Culberson said, adding he also inserted the report language specifying that the Space Launch System (SLS) be the baseline launch vehicle for it.
Nye, in his role as as CEO of The Planetary Society, also made a pitch to have NASA’s planetary science program funded at $1.5 billion per year, higher than the administration’s request. “What keep the the United States economically in the game, in my view, is innovation. So if you want to have innovation and keep the United States competitive, we need, or we can very easily, invest in space,” he said. “And right now, the most bang for your buck—the most effective space dollar—is planetary science.”