One year after President Barack Obama took office, the administration and Congress fought a pitched battle over NASA's strategic direction. Today, that battle was rekindled in a congressional hearing on a Republican proposal to realign NASA's priorities.
The primary bones of contention in 2010 were the administration's desire to cancel a 2004 strategy laid out by President George W. Bush to return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2020 and begin heavily investing in the development of commercial space exploration. Under a compromise spelled out in a reauthorization of NASA programs passed in September 2010, the moon mission was cancelled and NASA received a green light for helping private companies develop commercial spacecraft.
That law expires later this year, and some lawmakers want the moon mission back on the table. They also want to torpedo a new mission in the president's 2014 budget request that would capture an asteroid and drag it into a lunar orbit.
"While the committee supports the administration's efforts to study Near Earth Objects, [the asteroid capture proposal] lacks in details, a justification or support from NASA's advisory bodies," said Representative Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chair of the space subcommittee, in his opening statement. "Because the mission appears to be a costly and complex distraction, this bill prohibits NASA from doing any work on the project and we will work with appropriators to ensure the agency complies with this directive."
There are other radical proposals contained in a draft NASA reauthorization bill discussed this morning at a hearing of the House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee. In addition to establishing a base on the moon from which to explore Mars, the bill's proponents want to downsize NASA's Earth Science portfolio to $1.2 billion in 2014 from the current $1.76 billion instead of boosting it to $1.85 billion next year, as the administration has requested. The 2-year bill would redirect some of those funds to planetary science, which has seen a decline in recent years.
The draft bill also asks NASA to formulate a Mars Exploration road map that would involve using the moon as a base for exploring the Red Planet. This is a revival of an idea that was presumed to have died when Congress settled on language for the 2010 reauthorization.
The draft bill is the beginning of what may be a long negotiation among lawmakers over the coming months. The two witnesses who testified—Cornell University astronomer Steven Squyres and former Lockheed Martin executive A. Thomas Young—expressed reservations over several aspects of the reauthorization, including the directive to revive the moon mission. "I do not believe that landing on the moon is a prerequisite to going to Mars," Young said.