White House, Congress Praise NASA’s Mars Perseverance Landing

White House, Congress Praise NASA’s Mars Perseverance Landing

President Biden, Vice President Harris and a host of congressional leaders sent NASA congratulations today after the successful landing of the Mars Perseverance rover on Mars.  The car-sized rover, equipped with a helicopter and a system to collect samples for later return to Earth, survived the perilous “Seven Minutes of Terror” from the top of the Martian atmosphere to a safe landing in Jezero Crater at 3:55 pm EST today.

This is NASA’s ninth successful Mars landing since the 1970s when Viking 1 and Viking 2 inaugurated robotic exploration of the Red Planet’s surface. Some, like the Vikings, were stationary landers, but Perseverance is the fifth rover and the first to deliver a helicopter, Ingenuity, that hopefully will become the first aerial vehicle to fly on another world.

Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said at a post-landing press briefing this afternoon that President Biden called him to say “congratulations, man!” and wants to congratulate the entire team in person soon.

Meanwhile, Biden sent a tweet.

Vice President Harris added her own congratulations.  The Biden Administration has not yet revealed if it intends to coordinate U.S. space policy through a White House National Space Council, but if it does, Harris would be its chair.  The Space Council was created by the 1989 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 100-685) and directs that it will be chaired by the Vice President.  Some Presidents — Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama — chose not to fund or staff the Space Council, but it exists in law and is available to those who, like President Trump, decide it is an effective mechanism.

Harris also discussed Perseverance in a call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday. France contributed the SuperCam instrument that will analyze the chemistry and mineralogy of Martian rocks and soil.

Perseverance carries a robust suite of science and technology experiments to conduct itself, but it also is the first of three missions intended to return samples of Mars to Earth.  NASA and the European Space Agency will partner to build and launch the next two — a Sample Fetch Rover and an Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) — for launch later this decade.

It will be expensive.

Perseverance alone cost $2.7 billion for development, launch, operations and analysis, plus $85 million for Ingenuity ($80 million for development $5 million for operations). NASA and ESA will share the cost of the other two Mars Sample Return missions. ESA estimates its share at 1.5 billion Euros.  NASA’s initial estimate for its portion was $2.9-3.3 billion, but an Independent Review Team recently advised the agency to plan on $3.8-4.4 billion instead. NASA wants to launch in 2026, so that funding would have to be made available quickly, at the same time it is trying to return astronauts to the Moon through the Artemis program and invest in a broad array of space and earth science, space technology, and aeronautics projects.

Strong White House and congressional support will be required for the rest of the Mars Sample Return campaign to happen.

Many members of Congress sent their congratulations today including key leaders of the committees that oversee and fund NASA.  Though not an exhaustive list, among them were the chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which authorizes NASA activities, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and the chairman of its space subcommittee, Don Beyer (D-VA), and the Ranking Members of the full committee and subcommittee, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Brian Babin (R-TX). Their full committee Senate counterparts, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) followed suit.

Those are NASA’s authorization committees, which set policy and recommend funding levels, but it is the appropriators who actually have money to spend.  NASA is funded through the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. The Senate CJS subcommittee is led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS).  The House CJS subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) and its Ranking Member is Robert Aderholt (R-AL).  Cartwright is only one of these key committee members who did not explicitly offer congratulations (by press time, at least), although he did retweet some of NASA’s tweets about the landing.  He just took over the chairmanship of the subcommittee after the retirement of José Serrano, but he was vice-chairman in the last Congress and supports NASA.

The chairman and vice chairman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), also tweeted their congratulations.

Whether all the good wishes will translate into budgetary support remains to be seen, but they do demonstrate that the political leaders who are key to NASA’s future are paying attention, and happy. As least for this moment, all can revel in the tremendous success of Perseverance’s landing.

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