An artist’s rendition of NASA’s Space Launch System.
An artist’s rendition of NASA’s Space Launch System, which the agency is testing for missions to Mars and other deep-space exploration. Credit: NASA

NASA needs an unwavering, long-term commitment and an Apollo program–type management system to get humans back to the Moon and then possibly on to Mars in a timely manner, former astronauts and NASA scientists said at a 16 February congressional hearing.

The hearing, held by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, examined the agency’s goals but largely zeroed in on the possibility of a manned mission to Mars.

To get there, however, the agency needs to set clear priorities for its human space initiative and other programs, they said. What’s more, some NASA programs may need to be cut out, cut back, or moved to other agencies or the private sector to keep a human Mars and deep-space program on target and within budget.

“It is very difficult to explore a universe of infinite wonder with a finite budget.”

Republicans, including Science Committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), have targeted NASA’s Earth science efforts for cutbacks. Questioning the International Space Station’s cost at the hearing, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chair of the Science Committee’s space subcommittee, asked if it is possible to both extend the station’s operations to 2024 and conduct deep-space exploration without significantly increasing NASA’s budget.

“It is very difficult to explore a universe of infinite wonder with a finite budget,” he said. “Fortunately, the election of a new administration and the start of a new Congress have given us an important opportunity to think about our space program and consider bold new directions for our future in space.”

The 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act (S.442), which the Senate approved by unanimous consent on 17 February, would provide stability for the agency by authorizing $19.5 billion for the current fiscal year of 2017. The bipartisan bill, which does not appropriate funding, directs NASA to send humans to Mars and expand commercial space activity, its Senate backers said in a press release. The House is expected to consider the bill soon.

Agency Priorities

“Exploration is in our blood,” Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. senator, said at the hearing. “To have a deep-space and human spaceflight program that includes the Moon, Mars, and deep space itself, that needs to be a focus,” he added, noting that a human flight to Mars requires a multidecadal commitment.

Calling for alternate ways to implement “the very fine programs that NASA has undertaken in the years largely since Apollo,” he questioned whether NASA should continue to provide technical assistance to other agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with which NASA develops Earth observation satellites.

Another witness, Tom Young, said that hard budget decisions need to be made. “If we continue on the current course with the multiple paths that we are on in the current budget, the committee hearing that will take place 10 years from now will say, ‘What a disappointing decade we’ve had,’” said Young, a past director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a past president and chief operating officer of the former Martin Marietta Corporation. However, “we will be negligibly closer to landing humans on Mars than we are today,” he continued.

“There is no way” for NASA to have a credible exploration program and a credible low Earth orbit space station program and continue with the agency’s other programs without another $10 billion per year in its budget, Young said. He told the committee that he recommended prioritizing what’s needed to support getting humans to Mars and transitioning the International Space Station to the commercial sector.

Loss of Space Leadership?

Some witnesses blamed the Obama administration for what they said was its lack of leadership in space exploration, and they expressed hope that the Trump administration refocuses the agency.

Thomas Stafford, chair of NASA’s International Space Station Advisory Committee, said that the nation’s “loss of preeminence in space” weakened American leadership. Stafford, a former astronaut on Gemini, Apollo, and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project missions, said that returning to the Moon should be an immediate goal and that the country “cannot cede the space between Earth and Moon, nor the lunar surface itself, to China or other countries” for national security, economic, and scientific reasons.

NASA currently is considering putting astronauts on the upcoming first integrated launch of the Saturn V class Space Launch System rocket with an Orion crew capsule to fly around the Moon. The agency is testing the rocket and capsule for deep-space exploration. At the hearing, witnesses praised NASA for considering adding astronauts to the flight, which could help to accelerate deep-space exploration, but they urged the agency to carefully study the idea to ensure crew safety.

Defending Earth Science at NASA

NASA already has “a sustainable plan” to get humans to Mars that “more or less fits within NASA’s existing budget.”

NASA former chief scientist Ellen Stofan agreed with the goal of sending humans to Mars, but she said that NASA already has “a sustainable plan” to get humans into Mars orbit by 2032 and to land later that decade. The plan “more or less fits within NASA’s existing budget,” she said, adding that Congress could accelerate the timeline with increased funding.

Stofan also defended NASA’s Earth science program, saying that its budget of about $1.9 billion of NASA’s total $19.5 billion has been fairly flat over the past several decades while shrinking in real dollars. “The Earth science program is an investment in this country, and it returns benefits to all of us every day,” she said.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2017), Focus NASA on Mars and Moon, not Earth, witnesses tell hearing, Eos, 98, Published on 23 February 2017.

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