When NASA decided to include a small lander on the upcoming mission to Europa, due to the prodding of Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, an appropriations chairman whose subcommittee oversees space agency funding, the planetary science community hailed the decision. Without a doubt, a landing in the icy moon of Jupiter would yield a tremendous amount of science, particularly considering that scientists believe that the ice crust of Europa overlays a warm ocean where life may reside. But on Tuesday, a post in the Planetary Society’s blog raised questions concerning the cost and long-term political viability of the Europa mission, including a lander.
“I of course want to see a lander delivered to the surface of Europa, but I have mixed feelings about the inclusion of a lander on NASA’s first dedicated mission to Europa for two reasons. First, as I will explore in more detail in my next post, adding a lander to the existing Europa mission will push its costs up, perhaps to the $3.5B range when including a launch on the SLS. Congress will need to substantially increase the planetary budget to prevent the Europa mission from crowding out the smaller planetary missions that provide balance to the program. While Congress can pass budget laws directing year to year spending, meeting these aggressive goals will require that the President’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) accepts the new plan and allows NASA to sign the necessary multi-year contracts with its vendors. In the past, OMB has resisted prioritizing the Planetary Science budget to accommodate a Europa mission.
“Second, the driving force behind the expanded mission depends on one Congressman and his continued re-election, his political party’s continued control of Congress, and his health. The alternative approach would be to run the exploration as NASA has run the Mars program by spreading costs out over a sequence of missions. This would be in the vein of the proposed ‘Ocean Worlds’ program currently being shopped to NASA and Congress.”
The Planetary Society’s caution is not groundless. The United States government has a mixed record of seeing costly, and long-term space projects through. The birth, short life, and death of the Constellation program serve as an example.
On the other hand, no reason exists to suspect that Culberson will not be in Congress by the 2023 launch date of the Europa mission, seven years away. He is 59 and has no known health issues. He represents a safe Republican district in Texas, one of the redder red states. The prospects of a Democratic takeover of the House, according to most political analysts, seem dim at best in the near term.
Of the presidential candidates, most seem to be at least willing to say they are for space exploration. The trick is for the next president, whomever he or she is, to match that rhetorical support with the financial kind. Congress just approved a $1.3 billion boost to NASA’s budget, the biggest it has had in decades. If that kind of support continues, enough money will be available for the Europa mission and much more besides.