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NASA chief, Congress debate economic wisdom of manned expedition to Mars

NASA chief Charles Bolden, right, pitches the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on spending priorities for the 2015 budget.
NASA chief Charles Bolden, right, pitches the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on spending priorities for the 2015 budget.
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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It's budget time on Capitol Hill. Thursday it was NASA's opportunity to defend its proposed $17.5 billion budget for next year — four percent above what the Obama administration has proposed.

The top man at NASA, administrator Charles Bolden, outlined the White House priorities, which push for funding weighted toward human, rather than robotic, space exploration. He emphasized the need for a heavy launch vehicle that will eventually allow NASA to move cargo and humans to Mars, working out the kinks by trying it out on the moon.

Bolden told members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee he hoped they would agree with him that  the "ultimate goal in our lifetime is to see humans on Mars."

But not everyone agreed. 

Huntington Beach Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher told Bolden that human travel to Mars would be expensive and take away resources from other projects "that might be more important to humankind than ... a symbolic mission of putting a human being on Mars." Rohrabacher pointed out "that we have robots and rovers and all sorts of other things that are on Mars already." 

NASA didn't include a dime in its main budget for the Mars rover program that landed a pair of robotic explorers on the red planet a decade ago. Instead, Bolden touted a separate, $35 million “Planetary Science Extended Mission Funding” proposal, saying "we have to find innovative ways to fund missions when budgets are reduced.” But there is little enthusiasm in the House for the supplemental funding proposal.

The office of Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, whose district includes JPL, says the current budget for the Spirit and Opportunity rover programs is $13.2 million. Opportunity is the only one of the two still functioning.

The fight over human vs. robotic space exploration is a fight Congress and the administration have been fighting since 2010 when Barack Obama proposed a U.S.-crewed Mars mission by the mid-2030s. 

Lawmakers at Thursday's hearing had their own ideas about NASA's funding priorities. They asked about the agency's commitment to education outreach. They also asked about a pair of telescopes — an airborne variety known as SOFIA (The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), and the James Webb Space Telescope, which promises to peer into the atmosphere of distant planets. And the lawmakers wanted to ensure NASA would continue its earth science program, which provides weather information. Most of these programs have research or development facilities in these lawmakers' districts.

Current events also figured into this year's NASA budget debate. Lawmakers wanted to know how Russia's aggression in Crimea might affect the International Space Station. Currently, Russia provides transportation to and from the station. Bolden told lawmakers the U.S. could begin launching its own rockets to the station by 2017. When asked about NASA's contingency plan, should Russia decline to fly American astronauts, Bolden chided lawmakers, reminding them "this Congress" chose to rely on the Russians because lawmakers didn’t fully fund its own program. "You can’t have it both ways," Bolden said.

Bolden tried to downplay Congressional fears, saying NASA deals with the Russian space agency, known as Roscosmos, not with the Russian government. Even when there were previous international tensions over Russian actions in Georgia, Bolden said, there was no effect on space cooperation. Besides, he added, the Russians may provide the ride to the space station, but they are "dependent on us to operate it."