The 115th Congress and new administration of Presidential Donald Trump got its first public discussion Thursday of what should be the priorities for NASA, and Congressional leaders and expert witnesses all agreed NASA needs bold specific goals and funding stability to support them.
That would mean Mars based on NASA’s current plans, but it also should mean going back to the moon, several witnesses declared.
At a hearing of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee co-chaired by Chairman Lamar Smith and Space Subcommittee Chair Brian Babin [both Texas Republicans] the committee’s leaders, the Democratic ranking members and witnesses including former Apollo astronaut and former U.S. senator from New Mexico Harrison Schmitt all bemoaned that the space agency needs more focus on a smaller but bold set of goals than the current multi-platform agenda.
“We’re trying to ensure NASA considers everything they do as a stepping stone to Mars. That’s got to be the priority,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, the Republican from Rockledge on the committee. “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority, and that’s where we are now.”
Without such focus, NASA’s primary goal of landing astronauts on Mars “will always remain 20 years in the future without such commitment,” declared one witness, Ellen Stofan, former chief scientist for the agency.
The debate over NASA’s priorities is not unusual but takes on more immediacy considering that Trump’s space priorities still are not clearly defined. At the same time, the agency continues to make course shifts while trying to juggle numerous major space programs ranging from human space exploration, commercial space promotion, deep space research, robotic exploration of the solar system, lower Earth orbit research and Earth science research.
On Wednesday, for example, NASA’s Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said, in a speech and a memo to key staff, that the agency now will consider sending astronauts up aboard the first launch of the next generation rocket, the Space Launch System. The plans until now called for that first launch to be unmanned, probably in 2019, and for the first crewed launch to occur in 2023. If the first launch has astronauts, it likely would be delayed a couple of years.
Smith, Babin, Democratic U.S. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas and Ami Bera of California, and the witnesses all agreed, in one way or another, with Stofan’s characterization that more focus is needed.
But like the various interests within NASA, they could not agree on the focus.
“My personal belief is the priority for human flight should be exploration, boots on the ground, either moon or Mars, my choice is Mars. To do that, we’ve got to not do some other hard things,” said Tom Young, past director of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight center and past president of Martin Marietta [now Lockheed Martin.] “Commercializing lower Earth orbit, I think my personal belief is NASA should not be in that business, except to offer technical support. The International Space Station si the more difficult of the questions. There is no way we can have a credible exploration program and a credible lower Earth orbit program, in my view, with the current budget.”
The others offered different answers.
“I am convinced the moon is a necessary stepping-stone,” Schmitt said.