Commentary by Michael Mackowski, 6/21/13
This week (6/19/13) a US House of Representatives appropriations committee that authorizes NASA’s budget issued a draft bill that forbids NASA from pursuing any asteroid retrieval mission and instead, directs them to lay out a roadmap for building bases on the Moon and Mars. Overall, there was a significant budget reduction and no new funds were authorized for these new missions. There was also a lot of budget shuffling, with some funds moved from Earth observing to planetary missions, and a bit put back into the Commercial Crew program.
The House committee thinks the asteroid mission is a “costly distraction” from the main goal of “sustained human presence” on the Moon and Mars. NASA administrator Charles Bolden has said that a lunar prerequisite is actually the distraction to getting to Mars. The asteroid mission was proposed as an intermediate step beyond where we are now and something that could be done on a limited budget (shorter duration than a Mars mission and no expensive lander required). So once again, there are too many cooks in this kitchen. NASA, Congress, the Administration, industry, and the science community all have different agendas and this just looks like so much more disagreement on a clear plan forward. Everyone wants to be in charge.
This latest development is disappointing in that it is another unfunded mandate for NASA and an attempt by Congress to make scientific and engineering decisions. They should let NASA figure out the best route to exploring the solar system, and leave technical decisions to engineers. Pundits do not expect this version of the NASA appropriations bill to make it through the Senate, so expect more battles in Washington as the summer heats up.