A House of Representatives spending panel has proposed a NASA budget for 2013 that allocates $150 million toward the development of a Mars sample return mission within the next decade. The bill, drafted by the House appropriations subcommittee for commerce, science and justice, includes language that would forbid NASA from spending the money until the National Research Council (NRC) of the U.S. National Academies can certify that the mission concept chosen by the agency will lead to returning a martian sample to Earth.
The language signals that lawmakers intend to make NASA follow through on assurances, made by agency officials, that NASA is not abandoning Mars exploration despite the decision to pull out of the European-led ExoMars missions of 2016 and 2018. NASA recently established a Mars Program Planning Group that is soliciting ideas for a new Mars mission that the agency hopes will be a stepping stone toward a longer term goal of sending humans to the Red Planet. That group is supposed to deliver a report in the next 6 months.
If an NRC review of NASA's mission concept concludes that it will not lead to a sample return, the bill directs the agency to spend the $150 million on developing a mission to orbit Europa, one of Jupiter's icy moons. That would be in line with the priorities laid out in the NRC's planetary science decadal survey, released in March 2011.
The House bill provides $5.095 billion overall for NASA science—$5 million above the FY 2012 level. It includes $628 million for the James Webb Space Telescope.
A Senate spending panel released its version of NASA's 2013 budget yesterday.
Correction, 19 April: The House bill provides $5 million above the FY 2012 level, not $5 million less than the president's request as originally reported.