Funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division, the supply of Pu-238, and legislation focusing on the future commercial mining of asteroids were some of the topics covered in a September 10 hearing by the full House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
Committee members are enthusiastic supporters of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. There were few partisan differences expressed between the members, although the Obama Administration’s budget requests for the Division were criticized by Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) as being insufficient. Said Smith, “The President’s budget requests have made it clear that this Administration does not consider planetary science a priority. Over the past two years, the Obama Administration has significantly cut funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division. . . . . Congress has made it clear, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, that we value the planetary science community and the important work they do.”
House and Senate appropriators rejected the Administration’s request to reduce the budget for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in FY 2015. Current Directorate funding is $5,151.2 million. The Administration requested a 3.5 percent reduction to $4,972.0 million for FY 2015. The House-passed appropriations bill provides $5,193.0 million; the Senate bill $5,200.0 million. Funding for Planetary Science would decline 4.8 percent under the Administration’s FY 2015 request, from the current budget of $1,345.0 million to $1,280.3 million. Senate appropriators recommended $1,301.7 million; the House bill allocated $1,450.0 million for Planetary Science.
One of the five witnesses at this hearing was James Green, NASA Planetary Science Division Director. His written testimony and opening statement were upbeat, describing current and future missions. Answering questions about funding scenarios he assured committee members that the Division would do its best to use its FY 2015 funding appropriately, saying that it was his goal to follow the recommendations of a decadal survey “to the best of by ability.” Asked about what the Division would do if it received flat funding for all of FY 2015 he said “we must find a way” to continue operations for ongoing missions while looking toward the funding of future missions.
Other witnesses were direct in their criticism of the Division’s funding and offered similar cautions about the future of its programs. Jim Bell, President of The Planetary Society and professor at Arizona State University, said the future of planetary exploration “has been severely undermined by disproportionate cuts initiated by the Administration in recent years.” Mark Sykes, CEO and Director of the Planetary Science Institute offered similar criticism, telling the committee “there is great unease across the planetary community about the future of the United States solar system exploration program.” That same concern was expressed by Philip Christensen of Arizona State University who was the recent chair of the Mars Panel of the National Research Council’s Planetary Decadal Survey and the current co-chair of the NRC Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science. He said “planetary science funding has remained well below the preceding years, and well below what is needed to implement the Decadal Survey recommendations. Equally important, the uncertainties that exist in the year-to-year levels of support have made long-term planning extremely difficult.”
The future supply of Pu-238 for deep space missions was raised by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL). Green replied by describing a program involving both NASA and the Department of Energy to produce a sufficient supply of plutonium oxide. Green said he was “very confident” with production plans “very much on track,” adding that future needs will be met going forward.
Asteroids were also a topic of discussion, including the Administration’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission and the status of the Near Earth Object Survey that was the subject of a report by NASA’s Inspector General.
The hearing also looked at a five-page bill introduced in mid-July by Rep. Posey and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), H.R. 5063, the “American Space Technology for Exploring Resources Opportunities in Deep Space Act” (ASTEROIDS Act). The hearing charter prepared by the committee’s staff describes this bill on pages 8-10. This document explains:
“Advances in the commercial space industry have been accompanied by interest in exploring resources that exist in space, including on asteroids and the Moon. Private companies recognize the potential for finding and extracting rare minerals and water in asteroids, and how the ability to access and retrieve these minerals may reduce U.S. dependence on foreign countries to supply domestic demand.”
It later states:
“The ASTEROIDS Act of 2014 expresses the desire of commercial and private entities in this burgeoning industry to address the challenges of staking claims to resources in outer space. Without a guarantee of property rights to minerals extracted from an asteroid (not rights to ownership of an asteroid), there is no incentive for these companies to engage in this activity.”
A fifth witness, Joanne Gabrynowicz, Professor Emerita, Director Emerita, Journal of Space Law Editor-in-Chief Emerita, University of Mississippi, discussed the unprecedented nature of this legislation. Her written testimony concluded that:
“H.R. 5063 acknowledges and addresses some issues that arise from the unprecedented activity of private sector asteroid resource utilization. It also acknowledges and addresses some of the United States’ existing international obligations regarding activities in space. Not all relevant issues are provided in the Bill, and given the ambiguities existing in space law, it is unlikely that it possible to do so. If made into law, it should be expected that there would be both legal and political challenges to its terms. International space law contains many gaps and ambiguities. It is logical and appropriate to attempt to resolve those ambiguities in favor of the U.S. national interest. At the same time, the final results must be consistent with international law and the obligations of the United States.”