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House Panel Pummels Holdren Over Cuts to NASA's Planetary Program

1 March 2012 1:53 pm
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NASA

A proposed $300-million cut to NASA's planetary science budget threatens U.S. leadership in the field—and breaks a promise to the community, says a Democratic member of the House of Representatives spending panel that oversees the space agency. The unusually sharp exchange yesterday between presidential science adviser John Holdren and a member of his own party points to bipartisan unhappiness in Congress with the Obama Administration's decision to pull out of two martian missions being planned jointly with the European Space Agency.

"I can't tell you how distressed I am to see this change in direction," Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), told Holdren during a hearing by the commerce, justice, and science appropriations subcommittee of the House of Representatives on the Administration's 2013 budget request for research. "We are at the point where we have given up our leadership in manned space flight, and now we about to give up our leadership in planetary science."

Schiff accused the Administration of "reneging" on its commitment to the planetary science community to support a 2016 mission that would orbit Mars and a 2018 mission to collect rock and soil samples from the red planet. He said that Administration officials "knew all along" that the Mars missions would have to be canceled because of NASA's tight budget "but they didn't want to contend with Congress because they knew it wouldn't fly. … I have to conclude that was just being disingenuous," said Schiff, whose district includes NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has been building the flagship instrument on the 2016 mission.

Holdren said the decision was one of many "tough choices" in the president's proposed budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins on 1 October. He said that NASA realized it needed $450 million more than Congress gave it this year to maintain progress on building a commercial crew vehicle that would replace the space shuttle in ferrying U.S. astronauts to the international space station. That money, Holdren said, had to come from somewhere else within NASA's $17.8 billion budget, which would remain flat under the president's request.

"I didn't know last year that the Mars missions were going to become unaffordable," Holdren told the panel, "and I can't speculate about who in the Administration knew what about what." Holdren cited several current missions as evidence that the Administration wasn't "abandoning" Mars, including the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) that will land on the red planet in August. That didn't placate Schiff, however, who complained that NASA "is resting on its laurels" and that "if MSL were still on the drawing board, you would be telling us that you are canceling it."

In talking about the difficult tradeoffs that the Administration had to make, Holdren indirectly acknowledged that the proposed $300-million cut would be a major blow to the planetary sciences program. "If you're going to fix planetary science, you're going to have to figure out where it will come from," Holdren told Schiff. "And somebody's ox is going to get gored."

Schiff was joined in his attack on the proposed cuts by Representative John Culberson (R-TX), who represents a district in Houston, home to NASA's Johnson Space Center. "I just want to agree 100% with what the gentleman has said, and that I think that what this budget does to planetary science is deplorable." Culberson also took the opportunity to plug a proposed mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, that is another top priority of the community that has yet to attract NASA funding.

Those twin attacks gave Holdren the chance to deliver one of the best lines of the hearing, which was chaired by Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA). "I'm usually happy to see bipartisan agreement. But in this particular case … ." Holdren quipped.

Wolf seemed sympathetic to the concerns of his colleagues. Although the subcommittee had invited Holdren to discuss the full range of the Administration's proposed $141 billion investment in science across some two dozen agencies, Wolf's first round of questions focused on the planetary science cuts. He also asked repeatedly if NASA could find ways to reduce the cost of its commercial crew program, suggesting that the savings could be passed onto other parts of NASA's portfolio. Whether that benefits planetary science, however, won't be known until the panel marks up its bill later this spring.

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