Today, the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing to examine the prospects for future exploration of Mars and implications of the current fiscal crisis to the future of U.S. planetary science.
"Through development of critical technologies, NASA has orbited Mars with powerful satellites, put rovers on its surface, and in less than two weeks time is preparing to launch yet another rover that will be bigger and more capable still," said Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS). "The conundrum now facing NASA is selecting a mission that is the next logical step in our exploration of Mars, and how to pay for it."
On November 25, 2011, NASA will launch the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), a rover that will wander the Martian surface to conduct a variety of experiments on the geological, atmospheric and chemical composition of Mars. Yet, even as MSL begins its journey, the follow-on missions in 2016 and 2018 -- planned jointly with the European Space Agency (ESA) -- have been scaled back significantly and could be on the brink of cancellation altogether. Until the Administration delivers its fiscal year 2013 budget request to Congress, NASA is left without definitive answers for our European partners. The White House Office of Management and Budget was invited to testify at today's hearing, but chose not to participate.
In March of this year, the National Academy of Sciences published a comprehensive report titled Visions and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013 - 2022. This report reflects a broad consensus of the planetary science community, identifying key questions and strategies to guide NASA in the decade ahead as it endeavors to plan the next series of missions. It is the product of an immense effort that sought a wide range of input, including papers, meetings, and reviews by a committee chaired by Dr. Steven Squyres.
Testifying today, Dr. Squyres discussed the importance of ambitious planetary science missions and warned of severing diplomatic ties with our space-faring allies. "The ability to carry out the most challenging tasks in deep space exploration -- tasks like landing and roving on Mars -- is one of our nation's scientific and technical crown jewels," Squyres said. "If we give up that capability by abandoning planetary Flagship missions, then we do a disservice not just to ourselves, but also to future generations of American scientists, engineers, and explorers More pragmatically," Squyres continued, "I fear that an inability to enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with a willing, eager, and highly capable agency like ESA would jeopardize future international partnerships as well." In response to a question about the importance of maintaining America's technical preeminence in planetary missions, Dr. Squyres responded, "the danger to our leadership is that we could lose it."
While conceding "increasing budget pressures," Dr. James Green, Director of Planetary Science Division at NASA, praised the upcoming MSL mission, and attempted to reaffirm ongoing cooperation with ESA. "NASA has had a long and productive history of successful cooperation with ESA, particularly in the area of space science," Dr. Green noted. "Last month Administrator Bolden and the ESA Director General Dordain met to discuss among other topics the progress of the ongoing Mars exploration program review. At that time they both reaffirmed their Agencies' commitment to explore cooperation on a mutually beneficial Mars exploration program."
The following witnesses testified before the Committee:
Dr. Jim Green, Planetary Science Division Director, Science Mission Directorate, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Dr. Steve Squyres, Chair, Committee on the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, National Academies of Science