Detailed NASA budget request offers details on SOFIA decision and more

NASA released late Monday its detailed (713-page) fiscal year 2015 budget request, containing many additional details about its proposed budget now available last week. Some highlights:

The budget document provides more details on the decision to cut funding for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne telescope, which will result in the facility being put in storage if NASA can’t find partners to pick up the slack. “The original case for compelling ‘Great Observatory’ science from SOFIA assumed an overlap with the Spitzer Space Telescope for complementary science observations and at least one year of operations prior to the launch of the Herschel Space Observatory,” said the document. However, SOFIA has suffered several years of delays, which NASA concludes means it “will no longer provide the kind of scientific impact and synergies with other missions as once planned. Additionally, the James Webb Space Telescope, planned to launch in 2018, will provide data at mid-infrared wavelengths, partially mitigating the absence of SOFIA.”

The budget proposal provides breakouts for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, revealing that NASA is seeking less month for both than Congress appropriated in FY14. NASA seeks $1.053 billion for Orion, versus $1.197 billion appropriated for the current fiscal year; SLS would get $1.38 billion versus $1.6 billion in 2014. The budget doesn’t go into details about how the SLS funding would be spent, as the program is pending a milestone known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C). “Once the SLS Key Decision Point (KDP)-C is completed (expected in April 2014), NASA will provide this [budget] data in a revision to the Congressional Justification,” the document states.

Planned spending for ISS operations will result in the “elimination” of one planned cargo mission to the ISS in fiscal year 2015, according to the document, which doesn’t specify if that mission is one flown by Orbital or SpaceX. “NASA is currently updating cargo requirements as part of the FY 2016 budget planning process, and assessing the full impacts of the FY 2014 appropriations,” the document states. As part of the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI), NASA is seeking $100.6 million for ISS operations to “prevent additional Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) flight deletions.”

The budget document provides some details on changes to NASA’s Space Technology programs. A planned in-space demonstration for its Cryogenic Propellant Storage and Transfer project, seen as key to potential future propellant depots, will now be done as a series of tests on the ground. NASA also plans to restructure its Laser Communications Relay Demonstration project “to encourage the greater involvement of industry.” The Sunjammer Solar Sail project will be delayed as it finds a new launch opportunity.

The budget projections for NASA’s Mars program do not, curiously, including any funding for the Mars Exploration Rover program (the Opportunity rover) for FY15 or beyond. MER, like other ongoing missions, is subject to the upcoming senior review to determine if it will continue operations, but other extended missions that will also be part of the review, like Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, do have funding listed for FY15 and beyond.

The budget also includes no funding for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3) instrument, planned to make use of spare parts for the OCO-2 spacecraft but be flown on the ISS. “In light of other planned spaceborne carbon dioxide measurement missions, the development of OCO-3 will cease, and no funds are requested for OCO-3 in FY 2015,” the document states. However, the additional OGSI funding includes $29.3 million to continue work on OGO-3.

Besides funding for ISS resupply missions and OCO-3, the OGSI section details how NASA would use this additional funding, if provided. The OGSI funding includes $35 million for additional planetary science mission extended funding and $15 million for accelerating work on radioisotope power systems. The $100 million for Space Technology would be used for a variety of programs, from additional support for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to cooperation with DARPA on a robotics competition.

Russian tensions add a sharper edge to EELV hearing

Wednesday’s hearing by the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee on “National Security Space Launch Programs” unfolded, as many expected, as a debate between United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX. ULA defended its work as the only company currently in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, noting its commitment to mission success and its efforts to lower costs to the government through a block buy of Atlas V and Delta IV rocket cores. SpaceX, seeking to gain business from the Air Force, argued that it could provide far greater cost savings through commercial contracts for its Falcon launch vehicles.

However, another factor entered in Wednesday’s debate whose prominence wouldn’t have been expected even a few weeks ago: the potential of deteriorating relations with Russia because of the crisis in the Crimea, with the potential to disrupt supplies of the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine that powers the Atlas V’s first stage. The subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), raised the issue with ULA CEO Mike Gass, asking him to assess “the reliability of that engine being available from Russia in the immediate future.”

Gass tried to assure Durbin and the committee that the RD-180 would be available for missions for at least a couple years even if the supply of those engines was disrupted. “First and foremost, we have two years of ‘safety stock’ inventory—actually, today we have greater than that—in country, and our ability to launch any of the near-term satellites that we need to do for national security” remains in place, Gass said. He added ULA had “another product” that can launch such payloads, an oddly indirect reference to the company’s Delta IV rocket. “We are not at any risk for supporting our national needs.”

Asked by Durbin about producing the RD-180 domestically, Gass said that ULA had that capability. “We’ve done that over several years, we invested hundreds of millions of dollars to prove that we have the capability to demonstrate our ability to build that exact engine,” he said. However, he didn’t say how long it would take to actually start producing that engine, or at what cost; previous plans to domestically produce the RD-180 had long ago been set aside in favor of simply buying and stockpiling engines built in Russia.

Musk was sharply critical of ULA’s reliance on Russian engines, as well as other components manufactured outside the US, for the Atlas V, going so far to suggest that the vehicle line be cancelled. “In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing assured access to space for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission,” Musk said in his opening statement.

Later, he argued that there was sufficient demand to maintain two vehicle families, but not three. “Currently ULA has the Atlas and the Delta, but those are redundant, we don’t need both of those rocket families,” he said. “I think it would make sense, for the long-term security interests of the country, to probably phase out the Atlas V, which depends on the Russian engine, and have ULA operate the Delta family and SpaceX operate the Falcon family.”

Beyond the debate about reliance on Russia (and the, at least for now, unlikely prospect of retiring the Atlas V), the hearing focused on the issue of whether competition could truly reduce costs to taxpayers while ensuring critical military payloads were launched safely. “I believe that leveraging the demand of the commercial sector is smart, but relying on commercial demand to enable national security carries huge risks, both to the rucket supplier and to its government customers,” Gass said, recalling the initial plan to maintain two separate EELV providers, Boeing and Lockheed, based on projections of commercial launch activity in the late 1990s that failed to materialize.

Musk argued that his company’s Falcon 9 could offer launches for $90 million (including about $30 million in military-specific mission assurance costs not charged to other customers), a small fraction of Atlas and Delta costs. (The Falcon 9, though, can’t launch all the payloads carried by the Atlas and Delta, something that SpaceX plans to remedy with the larger Falcon Heavy.) He said the certification process with the Air Force was going well, but was concerned that there would be fewer launches available for competition than previously planned: perhaps only one this year, versus earlier plans for five. “If our rockets are good enough for NASA, why are they not good enough for the Air Force? It doesn’t make sense,” Musk said.

While the hearing wrapped up in less than 90 minutes, the debate is far from over, even for this particular hearing. Durbin said he took the unusual step of asking Gass and Musk to submit ten questions they’d like to ask each other, with their responses to be submitted for the record. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of the full appropriations committee, said he would also be submitting additional questions for the record at the end of the hearing.

Gass, at one point, suggested that he would be addressing for the record some comments from Musk he helt were factually incorrect. “I heard Mr. Musk use all kinds of numbers that were categorically wrong, and I’d be glad to share with the committee the right calculation,” he said, without specifying what figures he felt were in error.

Arizona and Colorado legislatures consider space industry legislation

The Arizona House approved this week legislation to provide liability indemnification for commercial spaceflight operators in the state. The bill, HB2163, passed unanimously Wednesday after goes on to the state Senate. The bill is similar to laws in several other states that requires spaceflight participants to sign a liability release agreement, and protects companies in the state, including both operators and suppliers, from lawsuits in the event of an accident, with the usual exclusions in the event of gross negligence of intentional actions.

According to the East Valley Tribune, the legislation improves the state’s “chances of landing a spaceport.” However, the primary beneficiary is World View Enterprises, the Tucson-based company that announced plans last year to carry people on high altitude balloons, and do so under an FAA launch license. The company has proposed performing those flights from near the northern Arizona city of Page, although the company is also considering potential locations in Nevada.

In Colorado, officials with several business organizations pressed the state’s legislature to approve a set of bills to support various industries in the state in a rally outside the state capitol on Thursday. Among the bills they support is HR1178, which would provide a sales and use tax exemption for “qualified property used in space flight.” The bill, introduced in the Colorado House late January, has yet to be considered by the full House, although its finance committee did favorably report it out last month and referred it to the appropriations committee.

Europa on five (hundred thousand) dollars a day

The good news for planetary scientists in NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal is that the agency is seeking funding for the first time for “pre-formulation” work on a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, where some scientists speculate life could exist in oceans beneath the moon’s icy surface. The uncertain—and potentially bad—news for those scientists, though, is that proposed mission may not be nearly as big, and as scientifically compelling, as they would like.

The budget request includes only $15 million for the Europa mission planning, which is much smaller than the $80 million Congress earmarked for such work in the final FY14 spending bill; Congress also provided $75 million for Europa mission work in its FY13 spending bill. In both FY13 and FY14, though, NASA had not requested any funding for a Europa mission.

At the FY15 budget briefing Tuesday, NASA CFO Beth Robinson didn’t provide details about NASA would spend that $15 million, or how much the overall Europa mission itself would cost. “We are in that early pre-formulation state, so I know people have asked about the total size, and we’re frankly just not sure at this point,” she said. “We’re going to be going to the science community for different concepts to meet the central scientific goals that were laid out in the decadal [survey].” She did say she anticipated a launch of such a mission in the mid-2020s.

In the planetary science decadal survey, scientists identified a Europa orbiter mission as its second highest large, or flagship, mission priority, behind a Mars rover to cache samples for later return to Earth. However, the study estimated the cost of such a mission at $4.7 billion, which the study’s leaders said was too expensive, and recommended that the mission be descoped to lower its cost.

One approach to descoping that Europa orbiter mission is a concept called Europa Clipper. Instead of going into orbit around Europa, the spacecraft would go into orbit around Jupiter and make multiple flybys of Europa. Most recent cost estimates have pegged the mission at around $2.1 billion, which would keep it a flagship-class mission, albeit far less expensive that the orbiter concept in the decadal.

Comments a day after the budget rollout by NASA leadership, though, indicated that the agency is at least planning to look at Europa mission concepts that are much less expensive that even those lower-cost proposals. “We have committed to flying a mission to Europa in the decade of the 2020s,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said during a question-and-answer session following a speech at the Goddard Memorial Symposium Wednesday in Greenbelt, Maryland. “What I’ve asked people to do is I want the science community to come together with industry, academia, and our international partners, and my desire, to be honest, would be to target a Europa mission that we could fly for a billion dollars or less.”

In a later panel at the conference, NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld confirmed NASA’s interest in a relatively low-cost Europa mission, with plans to issue a request for information (RFI) for such mission concepts soon. “One of the things we’re going to do post haste is to put out an RFI for ideas, as Administrator Bolden said, for if we were to do a Europa mission at the New Frontiers category—about a billion dollars—what would you like to see, what what you do,” he said. “That’s part of forumlating the cost bogey for a Europa mission.” That request for information would be part of activities funded in FY14, and Grunsfeld added that some of the $80 million in FY14 funds earmarked for Europa would likely carry over into FY15 since it can’t be all be spend before the fiscal year ends.

The idea of a billion-dollar Europa mission has raised some eyebrows in the scientific community, who wonder if such a mission is even feasible given the technical challenges of flying to Europa and operating there in Jupiter’s strong radiation environment. There’s also the question of just how useful such a mission would be scientifically, if the lower cost reduces the payload of instruments it can carry.

Bolden, in his comments at the conference Wednesday, left open the possibility that a billion-dollar Europa mission might not be feasible. “That may or may not be possible,” he said, “because the one thing we don’t want to do is fly a mission of a certain amount of money that has no valuable scientific return.”

If it turns out that a scientifically usable and technically feasible Europa mission requires a budget of closer to $2 billion, like the Europa Clipper concept, with a launch in around 2025—11 years from now—that works out to an average cost of about $500,000 per day (if you’re wondering about the title of this post.)

Mixed reactions to NASA budget proposal

The release of NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal on Tuesday didn’t generate many strong reactions, either positive or negative. “I’m mixed,” writes The Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier in a blog post summarizing the budget. He was pleased there was a small amount of money to begin pre-formulation work on a Europa mission, but worried about a long-term decline of missions. “Analysts were worried about that a flat NASA budget at $17.7 billion would be difficult to maintain, given NASA’s commitments,” he writes. “Now we’re over $200 million less than that. SOFIA is the most recent casualty of this slow decline.” (The society’s official statement on the budget will come after the release of more detailed budget information, expected either late this week or early next week.)

Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) also sees the budget as an “improvement” for planetary science at NASA, but an insufficient one. “While I’m pleased to see the budget continues to provide funding for the Mars Exploration Program, in particular the Mars 2020 mission, and recognizes the importance of a future mission to Europa, a far greater investment will be necessary to ensure America’s preeminence in planetary science,” said the congressman, whose district includes JPL. “I look forward to working with my colleagues, once again, to restore adequate funding to planetary science and only wish it wasn’t necessary to do so year after year.”

The Space Foundation weighed in on the budget in general, supporting the funding levels for programs such as SLS and Orion, ISS, and commercial crew. It also argued that the additional $885 million above the $17.46 billion baseline, part of the administration’s overall Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI), should be funded. “With NASA’s budget at a historic low as a percentage of the federal budget, we strongly support the $18.4 billion proposal as a bare minimum,” Space Foundation CEO Elliot Pulham said in a statement.

The overall NASA budget proposal also got support from the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA). “While budget details on specific exploration accounts are not yet available, we are encouraged that the President’s request supports human exploration and we look forward to learning more details on the President’s recommendations to increase space investments,” AIA president and CEO Marion Blakey said in the statement. She added the AIA “strongly support[s] the proposal to extend the space station until at least 2024; the work that is being done there cannot be replicated at any other national laboratory.”

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation said it supported the budget requests for commercial crew and space technology, whose requests are significantly above what those programs received in 2014. “We applaud the robust support for Commercial Crew and Space Technology which will strengthen our space industrial base, and secure the nation’s place as a leader of exploration and innovation,” CSF president Michael Lopez-Alegria.

A key member of Congress, though, didn’t share the relatively upbeat assessments of those industry groups. “However, I am disappointed to see flat or even decreased funding in a number of key areas of the federal government’s R&D budget,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the ranking member of the House Science Committee. “For example, the budget request for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration fails to even meet the 2014 enacted funding level and, if enacted, will hinder the agency’s performance in the coming years.”

Two key Texas races heading to runoffs

The Republican nomination for the Congressional district that includes NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) is headed to a runoff election after Tuesday’s primary, while elsewhere in the state, a longtime member and former chairman of the House Science Committee is also headed to a runoff.

In the 36th Congressional District, which just barely includes JSC, Brian Babin and Ben Streusand finished with 33% and 23% of the votes, respectively, and will face off in a runoff election on May 27. As noted here a few days ago, neither Babin nor Streusand discuss space as an issue on their campaign websites.

That seat opened up when the current representative for that district, Steve Stockman, decided to challenge incumbent John Cornyn for the Republican nomination for the US Senate. Cornyn, though, easily won the nomination, picking up nearly 60% of the vote compared to Stockman’s 19%.

Meanwhile, in the state’s 4th Congressional District, longtime Rep. Ralph Hall is heading to a runoff for the Republican nomination. Hall won a plurality of the votes in Tuesday’s primary, but at 45% failed to capture a majority needed to avoid a runoff. Hall will face John Ratcliffe, who got nearly 29% of the vote, in the May 27th runoff. Hall, a former chairman and current chairman emeritus of the House Science Committee, is seen as potentially vulnerable in the runoff given his limited campaign finances compared to Ratcliffe.

NASA FY 2015 budget supports asteroids, Europa, and commercial crew, but sacrifices SOFIA

First, let’s set the table (figuratively and literally) for NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal:

Account FY14 Omnibus FY15 PBR FY15 PBR + OGSI
SCIENCE $5,151.2 $4,972.0 $5,159.3
- Earth Science $1,826.0 $1,770.3
- Planetary Science $1,345.0 $1,280.3
- Astrophysics $668.0 $607.3
- JWST $658.2 $645.4
- Heliophysics $654.0 $668.9
SPACE TECHNOLOGY $576.0 $705.5 $805.5
AERONAUTICS $566.0 $551.1 $595.0
EXPLORATION SYSTEMS $4,113.2 $3,976.0 $4,326.0
- SLS/Orion $3,115.2 $2,784.4
- Commercial Spaceflight $696.0 $848.3
- Exploration R&D $302.0 $343.4
SPACE OPERATIONS $3,778.0 $3,905.4 $4,006.0
- ISS n/a $3,050.8
- Space and Flight Support n/a $854.6
EDUCATION $116.6 $88.9 $98.9
CROSS AGENCY SUPPORT $2,793.0 $2,778.6 $2,778.6
CONSTRUCTION $515.0 $446.1 $539.8
INSPECTOR GENERAL $37.5 $37.0 $37.0
TOTAL $17,646.5 $17,460.6 $18,346.1

While not that different from 2014, the president’s budget request (PBR), both for NASA and the overall federal government, has one curveball in it: besides the baseline funding requests, the budget proposal also includes a supplementary funding line, called the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI). This additional $56 billion in spending, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs, would be paid for through “common-sense spending reforms” and reducing tax benefits of very large retirement accounts. For NASA, OGSI would provide $885.5 million in additional spending on top of the baseline $17.46 billion request, spread across most agency accounts.

Arguably the biggest surprise in the budget proposal involved a relatively small program. The budget proposal would effectively end funding for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a 747 aircraft with a 2.5-meter telescope capable of doing infrared astronomy at altitudes above much of the infrared-absorbing constituents of the atmosphere. After a long, and sometimes troubled, development, SOFIA is just now entering routine operations, with a planned 20-year lifetime. NASA pays about 80 percent of SOFIA’s cost, at an annual budget of about $85 million, with the German space agency DLR paying the remainder.

“SOFIA has earned its way, it has done very well, but I had to make a choice, and that choice was that we would focus on those other efforts” in NASA’s science programs, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a media teleconference Tuesday afternoon about the budget. He said NASA would work with DLR and others “to find a way to get as much science as we can in the remaining parts of 2014 and then come up with a go-forward plan for 2015.” If NASA can’t get DLR or other partners to pay for NASA’s current share of mission operations, the airplane will be placed in storage in FY15.

Speaking at a meeting of the Space Studies Board immediately after the release of the FY15 budget proposal Tuesday afternoon, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said that SOFIA was the victim of an astrophysics budget that dropped sharply in the proposal versus 2014: from $668 million to $607 million. “Within that reduced budget, SOFIA doesn’t fit any more,” he said. NASA informed DLR of its plans prior to the release of the budget, he said, and the two agencies have agreed to establish a working group to study options for the telescope. Hertz later said he was skeptical that the telescope’s current operating costs could be reduced much, given that much of the overhead is in the form of jet fuel and costs to operate the aircraft safely that don’t offer much flexibility.

The news was somewhat better elsewhere in the agency. Advocates of a mission to Europa got a bit of good news with word that the budget includes a small amount of funding to support “pre-formulation” activities for such a mission, after Congress had specifically earmarked funding for Europa mission development in the final FY13 and FY14 appropriations bills. However, the requested amount is small: $15 million, versus the $80 million Congress appropriated for it in 2014. NASA officials were also vague about exactly what this mission would be and how much it would cost, even though the agency has been studying a “Europa Clipper” mission concept. “We’re frankly just not sure at this point” how big and expensive a mission that might be, NASA CFO Beth Robinson said, expecting such a mission would be ready for launch some time around the mid-2020s.

The funding requested for commercial crew, $848 million, is more than the $696 million it’s set to receive in 2014, but is not that much more than the FY14 request of $821 million. However, NASA’s plans for OGSI would give the program an additional $250 million. Robinson said she couldn’t discuss many details about the use of that funding since the agency is still in a “blackout period” while evaluating proposals for the next round of the program, with a decision not planned until late August. “We can say we’re confident the $848 [million] will allow us to maintain competition in this program,” she said. The additional OGSI funding, she said, “is important to have even more robust competition and to buy down risk.”

The budget also includes $133 million for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) plans, up from $78 million in FY14; the difference is increased funding for solar electric propulsion (SEP) work in the space technology program. That work will also support a Mission Concept Review in early winter of 2015, which Robinson said will be used to “downselect to the key architecture for that mission.”

Bolden, perhaps indirectly responding to last week’s criticism of NASA’s long-term human spaceflight plans, emphasized that the asteroid mission was a key part of a “stepping stone approach” for human missions that eventually will send humans to Mars. “In order to carry out these pioneering missions, we have to develop technologies with the Asteroid Redirect Mission that will lead to subsequent first crewed missions to Mars,” he said in his opening remarks. Later, in response to a question about ARM funding, Bolden said, “The Asteroid Redirect Mission is one step on the pathway to Mars. It is a very critical step: it gives up the opportunity to demonstrate many technologies, such as high-power SEP, that will be needed as we proceed on to Mars.”

What to look for on budget day

Today’s the day the Obama Administration releases its fiscal year 2015 budget proposal. The Office of Management and Budget will release the overall budget documents likely by mid-morning, and NASA will release its detailed budget proposal at 1 pm EST in advance of a 2 pm briefing. (That briefing was originally, and curiously, slated to take place at the Goddard Space Flight Center rather than NASA Headquarters, but late yesterday the agency decided to do the briefing as a teleconference, citing winter weather that closed government offices on Monday and delayed opening this morning.)

The attention, of course, will be on NASA’s overall budget numbers, but it’s worth following a few other issues in the budget:

NASA’s asteroid initiative: NASA used the fiscal year 2014 budget rollout to unveil its asteroid initiative, including plans for a mission to redirect a small asteroid into cislunar space to be visited by astronauts on an Orion mission. That proposed mission has faced pushback from some in Congress, as recently as last week, who are skeptical of the utility of such a mission. NASA hasn’t shown signs of backing away from the mission, announcing plans last week for another forum about its asteroid initiative for late March, but it will be worth watching how many details about those mission plans, and their prominence, they receive in the budget rollout today.

Planetary funding and a Europa mission: NASA’s planetary science program has been a yo-yo the last two budget cycles: the administration has proposed significant cuts in the program, only to have those cuts at least partially restored by Congress. Will NASA again seek a lower (about $1.2 billion) level for planetary science? Also, in FY2013 and 2014, Congress earmarked funding for a Europa mission that NASA did not request. Aviation Week reported that the FY15 budget proposal will including funding for a Europa mission for the first time.

Commercial Crew funding and schedule: The same Aviation Week article said that NASA’s Commercial Crew program would be proposed funding “at a level permitting certification by 2017.” It will be worth seeing if NASA drops any hints on whether it thinks it will be able to support one or two companies through that process, and if two, whether they will be full contracts or a “leader-follower” arrangement where one company gets a full-sized contract and the other a smaller contract.

12 pm EST update: the OMB’s budget documents are out, including a summary of NASA, funding the agency overall at $17.5 billion. One small surprise: the budget sharply reduces funding for the SOFIA airborne observatory, from $84 million in FY2014 to a requested $12 million in FY15, “in order to fund higher priority science missions.” What those higher priority missions include isn’t spelled out, but the document does seem to indicate that an extension of the Cassini mission is included in the proposal.

In JSC’s district, space is a minor issue for GOP congressional candidates

On Tuesday, voters go to the polls in Texas for party primaries. Among the more interesting races will be the Republican nomination for the state’s 36th congressional district, which is up for grabs after the district’s current representative, Steve Stockman, decided to run against incumbent Sen. John Cornyn in the Republican Senate primary. The 36th district includes, near its southwestern borders, NASA’s Johnson Space Center, so it’s one of the few districts where space policy can be a campaign issue.

However, while the race for the GOP nomination has attracted a dozen candidates, only about half have devoted much attention to space policy, based on the issues sections of their campaign websites, and those who have don’t go into much detail. A review of those who do discuss it:

John Amdur says he is “committed to exploration” on his website, including getting more people into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. “The crown jewel of the U.S. Space Program, JSC has been left to atrophy by indecision and utter lack of leadership in Washington,” he writes. “President Obama needs to stop sidestepping the issue and find a meaningful vision that will support the Space Center that has supported every single American to go into space; when I am in Washington, I will be the loud voice needed for CD-36’s place at the center of Space Exploration and the STEM fields.”

Doug Centilli doesn’t mention space on his issues page, but his website does include an endorsement from Doug Morrell, who was NASA chief of staff when Mike Griffin was administrator. “People who believe in the importance of America’s space program, and the role that the Johnson Space Center plays in human flight, need Doug Centilli in Congress,” Morell states. “Doug has the experience and track record to effectively fight for a strong, visionary and well funded space program.”

John Manlove says we must ensure that “we have continued excellence for our space capabilities” on the issues section of his site. “As your next Congressman, I will work vigorously to support NASA, protect it from any reduction of funding, and to strengthen our leadership in space exploration to ensure our national security and foreign policy objectives are met.” Manlove also won the endorsement of the Houston Chronicle in January in part because he “seeks a new, long-term vision for NASA.”

Kim Morrell only tangentially mentions space when, as a bullet point on the topic of “Military Readiness,” states: “Regain our military superiority in the air, outer space and on the ground.”

Dave Norman is the one candidate with an entire issues page devoted to space, with a similar theme of regaining leadership in space. “Unfortunately, President Obama is content to watch our space program fade away, sacrificed on the altar of an ambitious social agenda,” he writes. “Dave will work to restore our space program and technological leadership in the world through both reinvigorated NASA manned space exploration and with a NASA partnership with commercial space enterprises.”

Robin Riley worked nearly 20 years as a JSC contractor, so, not surprisingly, he has views on “Protecting NASA.” “I strongly encourage the federal government and NASA to work with American citizens and American businesses to research and develop a new vehicle to continue human space flight and maintain American’s leadership in space exploration,” he writes, not explaining whether this “new vehicle” would be different from the Orion vehicle NASA is developing or commercial crew systems also under development.

The rest of the Republican candidates—Brian Babin, Jim Engstrand, Phil Fitzgerald, Pat Kasprzak, Chuck Meyer, and Ben Streusand—don’t discuss space on their campaign sites. (In 2012, Meyer, who also ran for and lost the GOP nomination for the district, proposed a special kind of savings bond called “Space Bonds” to fund human spaceflight.)

With a field this large, the race for the nomination will likely go to a runoff election in late May. The eventual winner of the nomination, though, is likely to win the general election in November. In 2012, Stockman won the district with 70 percent of the vote. While a dozen Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination, only one Democrat is running in the district: Michael Cole, who ran in 2012 as a Libertarian. He also does not discuss space policy among the issues on his site. (A reader does note, though, that Cole does have a blog post about NASA on his campaign website, although not as part of his issues page.)

At hearing, some argue Mars flyby mission can provide direction for NASA human spaceflight program

Dissatisfied with NASA’s current asteroid mission plans, and seeking a more detailed framework to support eventual human missions to Mars, some members of the House Science Committee used a hearing Thursday to press the administration to support a once-private proposal for a Mars flyby mission.

“While consensus on Capitol Hill might be hard to find, there is general agreement that the President’s asteroid retrieval mission inspires neither the scientific community nor the public who would foot the bill,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee, in his opening statement. He supported the idea of a Mars flyby mission. “NASA, the White House, and Congress should consider this Mars flyby mission proposal.”

The proposal is a variant of the Inspiration Mars mission concept unveiled exactly one year earlier by a team lead by multimillionaire Dennis Tito, the first space tourist to visit the ISS. At that time, a privately-funded mission would launch in early 2018, flying by Mars later that year before returning to Earth 501 days after launch. The 2021 version, as described by Doug Cooke, former NASA associate administrator for exploration systems who has served on Inspiration Mars’s advisory board, would launch in November 2021. The mission features a flyby of Venus in April 2022 and a flyby of Mars in October of that year before returning to Earth in June 2023.

The hearing, though, offered few other technical details about the mission concept, beyond its use of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and the Orion spacecraft. As mentioned in a November hearing, the SLS would require a new upper stage that NASA currently doesn’t plan to develop until well into the 2020s; the mission would also require a habitation module of some kind as well. Cooke, asked at the hearing about how much this mission would cost, deferred to NASA. “I think that question should be asked of NASA, to go look at this mission seriously,” he said. “To my knowledge, there’s not been a cost analysis of this.”

Cooke and another witness, Scott Pace of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, argued that the 2021 Mars flyby mission could be part of a broader framework of exploration missions. Pace said that there was a growing international consensus that the next step for human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit was cislunar space. Yet a Mars flyby mission, he argued, “serves as an interesting bridge, a potential bridge, between where we are with the ISS and where we would like to be with Mars and where our international partners and commercial opportunities are with human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit.” The firm deadline of a 2021 mission, dictated by orbital mechanics, would drive decisions “on how to rationally trade cost, schedule, risk, and performance.”

Some other witnesses, though, raised concerns about the mission concept. “In my opinion, the Inspiration Mars proposal provides, I think, an exciting opportunity for our space exploration and certainly for NASA,” said retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles. But, he added, “it does have high risk associated with it.” AIAA executive director Sandy Magnus, a former astronaut, said she didn’t doubt there would be astronauts willing to fly such a mission, but they would ask many questions about it, including life support, radiation, and other issues. “What am I going to do during the mission itself?” she asked. “If you are sending two people to Mars on a flyby they’re going to need to occupy their time.”

While Smith and other members expressed interest in the mission, that support wasn’t universal. Committee vice-chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said he initially supported the Inspiration Mars concept when it was privately funded, but his mind had changed when it turned into something that required public funding. “I think this is a foolhardy use of very limited government resources,” he said.

The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), also questioned whether the mission was suitable for the first crewed SLS/Orion mission, saying it was “unfortunate” that no current NASA officials were invited to testify. She noted that the title of the hearing was a question: “Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?” “I would guess that the likely answer will turn out to be ‘no,’” she said in her opening remarks. However, she added that NASA needs to provide more details on the steps it plans to take to reach the long-term goal of a human landing on Mars.

After the hearing, Reps. Smith and Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, sent a joint letter to NASA administrator Charles Bolden. In the letter, they state that “it is time for NASA to begin to develop a clear, well-planned technical implementation plan for the future of human spaceflight over the next few months.” Part of that assessment, they argues, should include both the 2018 and 2021 Mars flyby opportunities. The overall study, they added, “should be independent of the Administration’s budget projections and instead based on what NASA believes such systems could be developed.”

Inspiration Mars’s Dennis Tito weighed in on the hearing in a statement Thursday afternoon, saying he was “very encouraged” by the discussion. “I continue to believe, as do many Americans, that Mars is the logical destination to put human space exploration back on track and demonstrate the ‘can do’ spirit that seems to have faded over time,” he said. “The window of opportunity in 2021 is challenging but achievable and waiting to be claimed.”