OMB Cited as Obstacle to NASA-ESA Mars Cooperation

OMB Cited as Obstacle to NASA-ESA Mars Cooperation

It is rare in Washington for critics of actions by individual government employees to name names in congressional hearings, but today was an exception. At a House subcommittee hearing on the future of NASA’s planetary science program, Cornell University’s Steve Squyres identified Sally Ericsson at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as the person holding up robotic Mars exploration plans with Europe.

Squyres chaired the recent National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey on planetary science that identified the top science questions in planetary research for the next 10 years (a decade) and prioritized programs to answer them. Ericsson is the Program Associate Director (PAD) for Natural Resources Programs at OMB, which includes the Science and Space Branch that oversees NASA. According to the committee’s public witness list, she was invited to testify at the hearing. Subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) stated at the outset of the hearing, however, that OMB declined to participate.

The hearing by the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee focused on plans for future robotic exploration of Mars. In 2009, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) signed an agreement essentially merging their robotic Mars programs. Under that plan, missions are supposed to be launched in 2016 and 2018 as the first steps in returning samples from the surface of Mars. Many scientists believe that robotic sample return missions are a necessary prerequisite to sending humans there someday.

Russia launched a robotic mission last week to return samples of Mars’s moon Phobos, but returning them from the surface of Mars is an even more difficult undertaking. The Russian probe, Phobos-Grunt, is stranded in Earth orbit for unknown reasons, but Russian space experts have not given up on reviving it and sending it on its way.

NASA is about to launch the next of its Mars probes, Curiosity, on the day after Thanksgiving. For the future, NASA and ESA decided to merge their programs, jointly sending orbiters and landers to Mars over a period of years. First would be an orbiter launched in 2016 to study Mars’s atmosphere and serve as a communications link for a lander to be launched in 2018. The 2018 lander would rove across Mars’s surface, select samples, and place them in a container (“cache” them) for return to Earth by subsequent spacecraft.

Uncertainty about funding for NASA’s planetary exploration program is jeopardizing those plans, however. At the hearing, Squyres congratulated NASA for following the recommendations of the Decadal Survey and finding ways to reduce costs. Even though budget projections for NASA’s planetary science program have been sharply reduced in the past year, Squyres asserted that the descoped plan fits within the revised budgets. Squyres is the principal investigator for the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. He also was recently selected as the new chair of the NASA Advisory Council.

The issue, he said, was that OMB is not willing to make a commitment to the NASA-ESA plan. NASA’s Jim Green, Director of the Planetary Science Division (PSD) in the Science Mission Directorate, agreed that the problem was unwillingness in the Administration to make that commitment. In addition to the overall challenges in today’s budget environment, PSD also is expected to have to pay for some of the cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) honed in on the JWST issue during questioning. Noting that the cost of JWST rose from $1.8 billion to $8.8 billion, he castigated cost overruns at NASA as being a significant cause of the belt tightening now underway. He also criticized the Space Launch System (SLS) and suggested that it, too, likely would encounter cost overruns and is not needed.

Conferees on the FY2012 appropriations bill that includes NASA increased funding for JWST to pay for overruns and enable the mission to be launched in 2018 instead of years later. For FY 2012 alone, the increase is $156 million above the $374 million request. Another $1.067 billion above what was planned last year will be needed for FY2013-2016. Those increases will have to be absorbed by the agency. NASA officials have been saying that they want half of the $156 million in FY2012 to come from other parts of SMD and half from NASA’s institutional programs in the Cross Agency Support account. Earth science is exempted, however, so the half that must come from SMD would be split among other astrophysics programs, heliophysics and planetary science. That makes the funding outlook for planetary science even more constrained. The source of funds for the additional $1.067 billion in future years has not been revealed.

The thrust of the hearing, however, was not the actual budget numbers, but the reluctance of the Obama administration to commit to the overall joint robotic Mars exploration program with ESA. Green explained that it is OMB’s responsibility to weigh priorities across the government and it would not release its decision until the FY2013 budget request is submitted next February. Until then, Green said, NASA is proceeding on the basis of the 2009 agreement to plan the missions with ESA despite the lack of commitment on the part of the White House. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) called OMB’s action “a serious cause for concern” and said the subcommittee needed to hear from OMB about “why the joint program is being stalled.”

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