House Committee Highlights NASA’s Exploration of the Solar System

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Publication date: 
14 August 2015

John Grunsfeld, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, testifies before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on July 28 on the value of the various planetary sciences missions NASA is undertaking.

It is crucial that NASA continue to explore our solar system,” asserted Chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Lamar Smith (R-TX), in his opening statement of a July 28 committee hearing highlighting NASA’s efforts to thoroughly explore our planetary neighborhood. The hearing unfolded as a chorus of bipartisan and largely unchecked enthusiasm and support for NASA’s planetary sciences mission, which Smith said “inspires us to pursue extraordinary goals and keeps us on the forefront of scientific achievement.

Smith used the hearing as a platform to heap praise on NASA’s many missions to the planets, planetary moons, and other non-planetary bodies in our solar system. Among those he mentioned are the Dawn mission to Ceres and Vesta in the asteroid belt, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and the New Horizons mission that on July 14 finally reached the outskirts of the dwarf planet Pluto. The Pluto flyby of New Horizons marks the completion of the visitation by the United States to all of the solar system’s major bodies and has been widely hailed as a major milestone for NASA.

Citing the current and future benefits of these missions to humankind, Smith made a strong case for continued investment in the planetary sciences at NASA, arguing that many of the successful missions we are celebrating today, like New Horizons, “are the result of investments made a decade ago or longer.”  Said Smith: “Planetary science teaches us about how our solar system works and provides clues about how it was formed. Planetary missions discover the locations of minerals and potential water sources on asteroids, comets, moons, and planets that could be used on human missions or extracted for use here on Earth. Space exploration also inspires the next generation of young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”  

Smith then criticized the Obama administration for its proposed funding cuts to planetary science and exploration at NASA, warning that, “Funding levels requested by the Obama Administration would slow the rate at which we can develop, build, and launch new missions like New Horizons.” The President’s budget request has proposed funding cuts to NASA planetary sciences in each fiscal year since FY 2013.  The President’s FY 2016 request for planetary science is $1,361.2 million, which would amount to a decrease of $76.7 million or 5.3 percent below the FY 2015 appropriation.  In contrast, the House bill recommends $1,557.0 million for the FY 2016 appropriation, an increase of $119.2 million or 8.3 percent.

Smith also noted that the NASA Authorization Act of 2015, which was approved by his committee and which the House passed on February 10, would significantly boost authorized funding for the planetary science and exploration accounts at the space agency. At the same time, that bill would severely cut the authorized amount of funding for the earth sciences account.  This balance of funding within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate – especially between the planetary sciences and earth sciences accounts – has been a major point of contention in congressional debate on NASA in both the House and Senate this year, as FYI reported in April.

Full Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) matched Smith’s glowing praise with further commendations for NASA’s planetary sciences program.  Although she did not attend the hearing in person, because she was out of the country on travel with President Obama, in her written opening statement she drew attention to the value of NASA’s international collaborations on planetary sciences missions, calling them “productive and long-standing.”  Said Johnson: “We have cooperated with Europe on a number of challenging missions, including the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and more recently the European Rosetta mission to a comet, for which the United States contributed a number of instruments.” In her statement for the record, Johnson also highlighted the importance of developing advanced space technologies today that NASA will need in the future to successfully complete its missions.

Space Subcommittee Chairwoman Donna Edwards (D-MD) highlighted the key role of the scientific community in the prioritization of NASA’s planetary sciences missions, calling on scientists to continue to lead through Decadal Surveys of the National Academies. Explained Edwards: “There will need to be clear and thoughtful prioritization of research objectives, because there really is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to exciting new potential mission concepts….As Members of Congress, we all may have our own favorite destinations and missions, but it’s important that the scientific community be at the forefront to determine priorities that address the most compelling scientific questions while ensuring that the planetary science program remains in appropriate balance across research fields.”  Addressing the five prominent scientists on the hearing witness panel, Edwards reassured them that the last thing they needed was “Members of Congress meddling in the scientific work….I would like us as Members of Congress to step aside, make sure we provide you the resources you need, and expect we may not know the value of that for 50 years in the running.

Witnesses testifying at the hearing included: John Grunsfeld, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate and an astronaut who has flown in space five times; Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission and scientist at the Southwest Research Institute; Christopher Russell, the Principal Investigator for the Dawn mission and Professor of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at the University of California Los Angeles; Robert Pappalardo, a Study Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the Europa mission, currently in concept phase; and Robert Braun, a professor of space technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

In his testimony, Grunsfeld provided an overview of the major planetary sciences missions currently underway, from the recent New Horizons flyby of Pluto to the two Voyager spacecraft going deep into interstellar space (which hold records for the longest operating and furthest traveling spacecraft) to the Mars portfolio to the Dawn mission.  Grunsfeld cited the “incredible science” resulting from missions such as the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft that is orbiting Mercury and transforming our understanding of the planet closest to the Sun. In reference to the Dawn mission, which is exploring the largest objects in the asteroid belt Ceres and Vesta, Grunsfeld pointed out the importance of studying asteroids and other small bodies in addition to planets: “Examination of these objects allows scientists to investigate how planets formed and how life began and improves our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.” Grunsfeld also highlighted the Juno mission, which will arrive at Jupiter next year “to investigate the largest planet’s composition, atmosphere, belts and magnetic field,” and a planned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which “may harbor a salty ocean under a thick crust of ice with the potential to harbor life.  NASA is working on a mission that will send a highly capable spacecraft to investigate this fascinating world.

The missions to Mars, including the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter are all part of NASA’s “strategic, multi-mission approach to thoroughly investigate Mars.” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has in the past called the ramp up to a future manned journey to Mars the primary unifying focus of the space agency, as FYI reported in July.  Grunsfeld outlined some of the future missions being planned to Mars as part of this effort, including the Mars 2020 Rover, which according to his written testimony, “will carry seven instruments to conduct geological assessments of the rover's landing site, determine the potential habitability of the environment, directly search for signs of ancient Martian life for the first time, and help advance our knowledge of how we may achieve the ultimate goal of landing humans on Mars.

Grunsfeld took the time to make a strong case for the value of the planetary sciences, capturing the favored theme of the hearing. Said Grunsfeld, “We study the planets in our solar system to answer fundamental questions about where we come from, how the solar system came to be, and in the search for life beyond the Earth. Space exploration is difficult, requiring our best and brightest engineers and scientists to succeed, and when we develop innovative probes to explore the solar system, we invent technologies which improve our lives here on planet Earth.