from the politics-vs-science dept.
The outcomes of several races in the 2018 midterm elections may have an impact on the Europa Clipper mission, as well as other NASA priorities:
Perhaps the most significant loss occurred in Texas's Seventh Congressional District, home to thousands of the employees at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. A political newcomer, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, defeated the incumbent John Culberson, who has served in the House since 2001. Culberson, an attorney, doesn't have a science background. But he grew up in the 1960s building telescopes, toying with model rockets, and reading popular science magazines. For the past four years, Culberson has pushed his colleagues in the House and the Senate to steadily grow nasa's budget, for projects including its climate-science programs—which may come as a surprise, given the congressman's party line on climate change.
Culberson has fiercely supported one mission in particular: a journey to one of Jupiter's moons, the icy Europa. As chair of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, Culberson more than doubled the amount of money the space agency requested from Congress for an orbiter around Europa, from $265 million to $545 million. He also threw in $195 million to support a lander to the moon, which nasa hadn't even planned for, but would of course accept. Scientists suspect that Europa's frozen crust covers a liquid ocean that may sustain microbial life. Culberson was intent on sending something there to find it. "This will be tremendously expensive, but worth every penny," he said last year, during a visit to nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to check its progress.
With Culberson out of the House, the funding portfolio for the Europa mission could change. "I don't see any obvious members of Congress, Republican or Democratic, who'd be taking up that mantle of leading the Europa efforts, so I imagine that those are likely to start to wane," said Casey Dreier, a senior space-policy adviser at the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space-advocacy group.
Dreier said the development of the Europa orbiter, known as Clipper, will certainly continue. Since nasa formally approved the mission in 2015, engineers and scientists have made significant progress on the design of the spacecraft. But without a steady flow of funding, its launch date could slip, he said. The lander is on shakier ground. "I don't think you're going to see money for the Europa lander to continue showing up, because that's money that nasa has not been requesting," Dreier said.
See also: Culberson's ouster could spell big problems for NASA's Orion program, experts say
NASA's Europa lander may be in jeopardy after the midterms — and some are fine with seeing it go
What the 2018 midterms mean for NASA and planetary science
A House appropriations bill released May 8 offers more than $21.5 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2019, a significant increase over both what the agency received in 2018 and what the White House proposed for 2019.
While there is no mention of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) or the possibility of raising the James Webb Space Telescope's $8 billion spending cap, there is plenty of money for a Europa mission (a favorite of Rep. John Culberson) and continued development of the Space Launch System (SLS):
The bill, though, does specify funding for some programs. It calls for spending $545 million on the Europa Clipper mission and $195 million for a follow-on lander. NASA requested only $264.7 million for Europa Clipper and nothing for the lander. NASA said in the budget proposal it was seeking to launch Europa Clipper in 2025 on a commercial vehicle, while the bill calls for the use of the Space Launch System and a launch by 2022. In its budget proposal, NASA estimated needing $565 million in 2019 to keep Europa Clipper on track for a 2022 launch but warned of "potential impacts to the rest of the Science portfolio" if funded at that level.
The bill includes $1.35 billion for Orion and $2.15 billion for SLS, the same funding those exploration programs received in 2018. NASA requested slightly less for each: $1.164 billion for Orion and $2.078 billion for SLS. The bill fully funds the administration's request for the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, at $504 million in 2019.
Congress, in the 2018 omnibus spending bill, provided $150 million for WFIRST, which many interpreted as a rebuke to the administration's proposal even though Congress had yet to take up the 2019 budget. However, Congress passed the 2018 omnibus spending bill just days before NASA revealed another delay, and potential cost overrun, for JWST, complicating the future of WFIRST.
As with PACE, work on WFIRST is continuing for 2018 as the appropriations process for 2019 plays out in Congress. The mission's next major review, for Key Decision Point B, is scheduled for May 22, which will allow it go into Phase B of its development.
"We were funded fully through FY '18," said Jeff Kruk, WFIRST project scientist, at the Space Studies Board meeting May 3. "We have to be ready to proceed should Congress decide to continue funding the mission. The only way we will meet the cost cap is if we stay on schedule."
The White House's fiscal year 2020 budget request for NASA proposes to delay work on an upgraded version of the Space Launch System and would transfer some of that vehicle's payloads to other rockets.
The proposal, released by the Office of Management and Budget March 11, offers a total of $21 billion for the space agency, a decrease of $500 million over what Congress appropriated in the final fiscal year 2019 spending bill signed into law Feb. 15.
A major element of the proposal is to defer work on the Block 1B version of the SLS, which would increase the rocket's performance by replacing its existing Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage with the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage. The budget "instead focuses the program on the completion of the initial version of the SLS and supporting a reliable SLS and Orion annual flight cadence," the OMB budget stated. The first SLS/Orion mission, without a crew, is now planned for the "early 2020s," according to the budget, an apparent slip from the planned 2020 launch of Exploration Mission 1.
NASA had previously planned to use the Block 1B version of SLS to launch elements of its lunar Gateway, using a "co-manifesting" capability enabled by the rocket's greater performance. Instead, according to the budget document, those components will be launched on "competitively procured vehicles, complementing crew transport flights on the SLS and Orion."
[...] The budget proposal would also remove one non-exploration payload from the SLS manifest. The proposal offers $600 million for the Europa Clipper mission, enabling a launch in 2023. However, NASA would instead seek to launch the mission on a commercial launch vehicle rather than SLS, a move it claims "would save over $700 million, allowing multiple new activities to be funded across the Agency." The fiscal year 2019 budget request also proposed a commercial launch of Europa Clipper, but Congress placed into law in the final funding bill the requirement to use SLS for that mission.
Are we nearing a good timeline?
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An icy ocean world in our solar system that could tell us more about the potential for life on other worlds is coming into focus with confirmation of the Europa Clipper mission's next phase. The decision allows the mission to progress to completion of final design, followed by the construction and testing of the entire spacecraft and science payload.
[...] The mission will conduct an in-depth exploration of Jupiter's moon Europa and investigate whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life, honing our insights into astrobiology. To develop this mission in the most cost-effective fashion, NASA is targeting to have the Europa Clipper spacecraft complete and ready for launch as early as 2023. The agency baseline commitment, however, supports a launch readiness date by 2025.
Related: Amino Acids Could Exist Just Centimeters Under Europa's Surface
Impact of the Midterm Elections May be Felt at NASA
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NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he would not stay on as head of the agency under a Biden administration, even if asked by the president-elect.
Bridenstine, a Republican, represented Oklahoma's 1st Congressional District before President Donald Trump appointed him to NASA's top position. But he stressed that his plan to step down is not based on party affiliation. Rather, Bridenstine said, he would do so to ensure that the next leader of the agency could be someone with a longer-term relationship to Biden.
"The right question here is, 'What's in the best interest of NASA as an agency, and what's in the best interest of America's exploration program?'" Bridenstine told Aviation Week. "For that, what you need is somebody who has a close relationship with the president of the United States. You need somebody who is trusted by the administration.
"I think that I would not be the right person for that in a new administration," he added.