House Committee Still Wants Mars in 2033, Worries About Space Technology at NASA

House Committee Still Wants Mars in 2033, Worries About Space Technology at NASA

Members of the House subcommittee that oversees NASA continued their advocacy for sending humans to Mars in 2033 as the Trump Administration interjects a return to the lunar surface in NASA’s future exploration plans.  Several also expressed concern about the proposal to abolish NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and combine it with another part of the agency that focuses on development and operations.  Former NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun, now the Dean of Engineering at the University of Colorado-Boulder, submitted a statement for the record urging Congress to say no to the latter proposal.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot testifying to the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, March 7, 2018. Screengrab.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot testified to the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee today about NASA’s FY2019 budget request.  For most of the Obama Administration, Republican and Democratic members of the subcommittee and the full committee pressed NASA to focus resources on building systems to get humans to Mars by 2033 or sooner.

Putting humans in orbit around Mars in the 2030s was, in fact, the Obama Administration’s goal, but committee members wanted to speed up the timetable and land on the surface, not just orbit, Mars early in that decade.  Mars and Earth are properly aligned only every 26 months for spacecraft to travel back and forth and some of those opportunities –“windows” — are better than others.  The year 2033 is a particularly good window and became a rallying cry in particular for Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colorado) who routinely waves a bumper sticker at these hearings that says “2033” accompanied by a photo of Mars.

The Trump Administration wants to return humans to the lunar surface first as a steppingstone to Mars, however.  Lightfoot describes the FY2019 budget request as putting NASA “on a path to return to the Moon with an eye towards Mars” with no timelines for achieving those objectives.

Obama bypassed the lunar surface, focusing on operations in “cis-lunar” space in orbit around and near the Moon, including astronauts interacting with an asteroid in lunar orbit, as his steppingstones.  That approach would save the billions of dollars needed to develop lunar landers and other equipment needed for lunar surface operations.  The committee held many hearings during the Obama era where Apollo astronauts were among the witnesses arguing that returning to the lunar surface is necessary before setting out for Mars.

The Trump Administration has adopted that advice, but the question remains as to where the money will come from.  The Trump Administration’s request for NASA is $19.9 billion for FY2019, close to what it received in FY2017 (the FY2018 budget has not been approved yet), followed by a reduction to $19.6 billion for FY2020-2023.  That means a flat budget without even an adjustment for inflation.

At today’s hearing, Rep. Bill Foster (D-Illinois) directly asked Lightfoot if he could send astronauts to the Moon and Mars with that amount of money.  Lighftoot said “it would be quite a challenge,” but it could be possible if the budget is adjusted for inflation and Congress adopts the Administration’s proposals to cancel other NASA programs.  That includes ending direct NASA funding for the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025 and terminating the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colorado) with his bumper sticker urging human trips to Mars in 2033. Screengrab, March 7, 2018 hearing.

Perlmutter, with his “2033” bumper sticker, tried to pin Lightfoot down on when humans would reach Mars under this new plan.  Lightfoot said they would be putting the building blocks in place, but was not sure it would happen by 2033.  Perlmutter replied that NASA is saying it will try to get to Mars by 2033 and then quoted Yoda from Star Wars: “do or do not, there is no try,” a phrase Lightfoot said he knew well.  Later, Lightfoot told Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Florida) that it would be “no earlier than 2033 … I’ll just leave it at that.”

The budget proposal also wants to abolish STMD, which was created during the Obama Administration to focus resources on developing new crosscutting technologies that could be used for a wide range of space and aeronautics activities instead of being developed for a specific mission.  The Trump proposal would eliminate some of the technology development work STMD is doing and merge the remainder with mission-oriented technology development specifically for the Moon/Mars program, which is currently part of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).

Bobby Braun was NASA’s Chief Technologist from 2010-2011. Now Dean of Engineering at CU-Boulder, he submitted a letter for the record (introduced by Perlmutter) for today’s hearing warning about the dangers of merging large development programs needed to send humans to the Moon and Mars with technology development.  The proposal “guts the very research and development that is needed to accomplish the bold missions” and is “among the most devastating long-term aspects” of the budget request.

“Past history has shown that large development programs and technology development activities cannot and should not exist together, as a small hiccup in the development programs eats the budget of the basic research and technology advancement needed to accomplish more in space.  In fact, when integrated in this manner approximately a decade ago, NASA’s space technology activities were eviscerated.”

The proposal is being made without consultation with Congress, industry or the university community, he continued, and “can only be described as an egregious over-reach by political appointees without an appreciation for the long-standing scope of the Agency.”

Several subcommittee members asked Lightfoot about it.   He argued that the total budget for space technology actually would increase in FY2019 from $700 million to $1 billion because of the merger with exploration technology activities in HEOMD and some money still would be spent on advancing early stage technologies.  It’s a “small amount,” he said, “but it’s still in there.”

Concern was also expressed about the proposed cancellation of WFIRST.  Lightfoot agreed that NASA is worried about a “gap” in getting that type of data, but hopes two other astrophysics missions — the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), scheduled for launch next month, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), to be launched in 2019 — will do so.

WFIRST is intended to be the follow-on to JWST.  Its purpose is to investigate dark energy and dark matter and search for planets around other stars (exoplanets).

Questions were asked about the lack of funding for a second Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) at Kennedy Space Center that would be used for launches of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.   The first SLS/Orion launch, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), which will not carry a crew and is now expected in 2020, will use an Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) as the second stage.  EM-2, the first launch with a crew, will use a larger Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).  It will take 33 months to modify the existing MLP to accommodate SLS with an EUS instead of ICPS, putting the EM-2 launch in 2023.  Building a second MLP therefore could accelerate the EM-2 launch. Or NASA could buy a second ICPS and use it for EM-2, but it would have to be human-rated, which would add cost.   Lightfoot said NASA studied the issue thoroughly and concluded the expense of either buying a second MLP or second ICPS was too much and they would stick with the plan of a 33-month gap between EM-1 and EM-2.

Overall, the hearing was friendly and several Republican and Democratic members expressed their appreciation to Lightfoot for his service as Acting Administrator for such a long period of time.  He has been in the acting position since the Trump Administration began on January 20, 2017.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) was nominated to be Administrator in November, but it is controversial and the Senate has not acted yet.  That prompted some harsh Republican comments today.  Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) blamed it on “a couple of bull headed” Senators and “arrogance” rather than partisan politics.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.