Lawmakers steer NASA funding toward science mission

Mission to one of Jupiter’s moons and other former priorities overshadowed by emphasis on manned trip to Mars, critics argue.

In a move aimed squarely at countering what critics say is a broad move by NASA away from its scientific mandate to explore the solar system, House appropriators have included $15 million in the agency's fiscal 2007 appropriations bill for a robotic landing mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.

Considered by many scientists to be the premier chance of finding life elsewhere in the solar system because of its Earth-like seas, a mission to Europa was declared a top priority of the National Academy of Sciences Solar System Decadal Survey of planetary scientists in 2002.

Such declarations have historically been viewed as mandates for action by the agency and acted upon accordingly. But some on Capitol Hill and in the planetary science community argue that a mission to explore Europa has fallen by the wayside as the agency moves away from the type of explorations that defined NASA throughout its history and focuses on President Bush's goal of a manned mission to Mars.

The funding and related language, which cites the recommendation that an orbiter/lander mission to Europa be the "highest priority of the scientific community" -- was inserted in the NASA funding bill at the behest of Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, a self-proclaimed amateur astronomer and science buff.

Culberson was also a driving force behind language in the fiscal 2006 budget conference report directing NASA to begin planning for a mission to Europa and to incorporate it into its fiscal 2007 budget request, something House Appropriations language notes the agency failed to follow.

The move is part of his broader fight for more funding for the agency, in a bid to save the kinds of basic science and exploration missions that have provided answers to questions about the universe.

"I have seen NASA neglect fundamental scientific research and development, and to see them cancel the top mission of the decadal survey only reinforces my determination to give them more money and solid direction on ensuring they preserve the vital R&D work for flying decadal missions as they always have in their history," Culberson told CongressDaily. "This would be first time in NASA's entire history that they have failed to fly a top priority mission of the decadal survey and Congress is not going to let that happen."

While Culberson expressed anger over the ending of an unrelated NASA-funded nanotechnology research and development project at Rice University, he said there are no NASA facilities in his district and he is unaware of any potential constituent jobs or contracting firms in his district that could benefit from a Europa mission. Nor has he received campaign funding from any such private sector entities.

"I am pursuing this because of the vital importance of funding NASA missions to find life on other worlds and funding cutting-edge technology," he said. "I am just not going to sit idly by and let NASA devour R&D, but I have no stake one way or the other."

The importance the planetary and space community places on a Europa mission is immense.

Joe Burns, a professor of engineering and astronomy at Cornell University and former chairman of the National Research Council's committee on planetary and lunar exploration, echoed the language in the House bill, saying Europa is an "intriguing" body because it has the precursors needed for the development and sustaining of life.

"The body has an active surface and is likely to have [salt] water very close to what is found on earth," explained Burns. "There is the real possibility for some biological activity."

NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown said the agency could not comment on the Europa funding directive as it works its way through the appropriations process. But he indicated that while there is no current mission to Europa, the agency was examining the concept as part of an overall effort to maximize its budget.

"The science mission directorate folks are now looking at all the missions and really prioritizing with the budget challenges they are facing," said Brown. "Depending on who you talk to, everything is a priority, but in this budget-challenge[d] atmosphere, something has got to give."

Brown stressed that NASA continues to have a "robust" science directorate under which it is conducting studying "high priority science targets" through its New Frontiers program. This study is comparing the complexity and technical readiness for robotic missions to Europa, as well as Enceladus and Titan, two of Saturn's moons.

Nevertheless, the spending and scope of a potential New Frontiers-based mission, which are more limited in nature and focus on medium-class projects, remain unimpressive to Europa-mission supporters in the scientific community or on Capitol Hill, who argue that the potential scientific findings warrant a full-scale mission.

Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, said not giving Europa major mission status in the tradition of the Voyager, Galileo and Cassini projects reflects a movement away from NASA tradition and is a violation of its charter.

"The Europa mission is part of NASA's fundamental charter -- the search for life in the universe," he said. "The idea that NASA will put it into a New Frontier program is like taking a Voyager mission and making it a secondary payload. Limiting it to a new frontier mission means that NASA is cutting back on the mission as well as science."

A major mission to Europa was once considered a high priority at the agency, but it and other priorities fell by the wayside in recent years, particularly in the wake of Bush's mandate for NASA to gear up for another manned mission to the moon to use as base for a manned mission to Mars.

A highly anticipated and costly mission to Jupiter's moons, dubbed JIMO (Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter), was killed in the fiscal 2006 NASA budget request, despite the fact that Northrop Grumman was selected in 2004 for a $400 million preliminary design contract.

This and the lack of interest in a major Europa mission reflect what budget insiders and experts in the science community say is a reallocation of resources away from the agency's science programs.

Since becoming NASA administrator in 2005, Michael Griffin has made it clear that manned missions are his priority at the agency, a fact that House aides indicated in clearly driving NASA's budget requests.

The fiscal 2006 NASA budget request reduced space research funding by about 25 percent, including the indefinite deferral of the JIMO project, while NASA field centers that focus on life sciences research have had their budgets downsized.

In February, the agency announced that more than $3 billion in cutbacks over five years would be needed in science programs if NASA's budget continues to be funded at proposed levels.

"The highest priority is returning to the moon," said a House appropriations staffer with knowledge of the budget measure. "They just don't have the budget for this sort of [science] stuff."