Thursday, the Planetary Society took a look at President Barack Obama’s proposed spending plan for planetary science for FY 2017 and found that it was, for the most part, promising. The exception was the proposed spending for Europa, which the organization found to be unserious. In turn, Keith Cowing’s NASA Watch found that the Planetary Society’s complaining was unserious.
A mission to explore Europa is being championed by Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, the chair of the House subcommittee that funds NASA. The Obama administration is treating the proposal as it does everything that is advanced by Republicans, with profound contempt. The Planetary Society noted:
“And then there’s the Europa multi-flyby (previously called the Europa Clipper) mission. While previous Presidential budget proposals have called for this mission to launch in the mid to late 2020s, this budget proposal seems to call for a possible delay in that vague schedule by suggesting a ‘launch as early as the late 2020s’. The proposal ignores language in the FY16 budget law (which governs spending only for this year) inserted by Congress directing NASA to launch the mission by 2022 (and that also directed NASA to add a lander to the mission, which also is ignored in this new budget proposal). “
The administration proposal is just a tiny fraction of what would be needed to go to Europa in 2022 or any other year.
“In political terms, pushing the mission’s launch out a dozen or more years may be the equivalent of postponing it forever. For the mission to fly, it would need continuous support from at least two more Presidential administrations and as many as six to eight new Congresses. It’s hard to imagine any mission sustaining support for that long. It’s also hard to imagine how NASA could keep a high caliber engineering and science team together for what might be fourteen or more years (with a possible six or seven additional years of flight following launch to arrive at Europa). On a very practical engineering level, many of the technologies available to design into a mission today will be obsolete and no longer available by the late 2020s. The mission design would need to be continuously tweaked to substitute new technologies.”
In other words, the Europa mission would be unstainable and more expensive than it needed to be.
Keith Cowing, at NASA Watch, heaps scorn on the Planetary Society’s disquiet.
“This is hilarious. The Planetary Society is using the ‘politics’ dog whistle when in fact politics is all that they engage in when they lobby Congress for their referred projects – and against those they do not like. In this case, they are not getting their way, so, of course it is due to that horrible Washington scourge called ‘politics’. What will be fun to watch is when the Planetary Society eventually realizes that the only way that they are going to get their preferred Europa mission ala Rep. Culberson, is to fly it on a SLS. That means that they will have to start lobbying for SLS – and against (or not in support of) Earth science and/or commercial crew (where their extra Europa money will come from). Of course, SLS is at the heart of NASA’s #JourneyToMars so the Planetary Society will have to start to support that effort (which is also eating Europa funds) and not their Almost-Mission to Mars concept.”
One is hard pressed to understand what Cowing’s point is. Of course, the Planetary Society is going to support the sort of space missions it finds an interest in. Next to exploring Mars, going to Europa is at the top of that list. Is the Planetary Society not supposed to support such programs, even if it means making alliances with other space constituencies?
How about some outside the box thinking about NASA politics involving, say, increasing funding to accommodate all that the space agency has been tasked to do. The idea is not outside the realm of possibility. Congress has already made a good start in that direction with the current year’s spending bill. No reason exists that it cannot continue to add funding to NASA.