The House Makes NASA A Counteroffer It Probably Can’t Refuse

It looks like mostly good news in NASA’s budget for 2017. The Commerce, Justice, and Science sub-committee is the House of Representatives body that oversees NASA finances, and they have released details on how they would like to fund NASA in 2017. According to their plan, NASA’s budget would be $19.5 billion. That amount is $500 million more than President Obama had asked for, and $200 million above what the Senate had proposed.

If the bill is approved by the House of Representatives, then this budget would be NASA’s largest in 6 years (adjusted for inflation.)

While it is good news overall, some projects that were in NASA’s plans will not be funded, according to this bill.

On the chopping block is the Asteroid Re-Direct Mission (ARM). ARM is an ambitious robotic mission to visit a large asteroid near Earth, collect a boulder weighing several tons from its surface, and put it into a stable orbit around a Moon. Once the boulder was in a stable orbit, astronauts would visit it to explore and collect samples for return to Earth. NASA had touted this mission as an important step to advancing the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars.

ARM was an intriguing and ambitious mission, but it looks like it will be unfunded. The sub-committee explained that decision by saying “The Committee believes that neither a robotic nor a crewed mission to an asteroid appreciably contribute to the overarching mission to Mars,” adding that “…the long-term costs of launching a robotic craft to the asteroid, followed by a crewed mission, are unknown and will divert scarce resources away from developing technology and equipment necessary for missions to Mars.”

Another area seeing its funding cut is the Earth Science division. That division would lose $231 million compared to 2016.

There are winners in this bill, though. The Planetary Science division would receive a $215 million boost in 2017, compared to 2016. This means a 2022 mission to Europa is still on the books, and NASA can select two more Discovery class missions.

Beyond the numbers, the Commerce, Justice, and Science sub-committee also signalled its support for a human presence on the Moon. The sub-committee stated that “NASA is encouraged to develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles.” This is fantastic news.

The Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion program will also continue to receive healthy funding. These two programs are key to NASA’s long term plans, so their stable funding is good news.

There are some groovy technologies that will receive seed funding in this proposed budget.

One of these is a tiny helicopter that would work in conjunction with a rover on the surface of Mars. This solar-powered unit would fly ahead of a rover, acting as a scout to locate hazards and places of interest. This project would receive $15 million.

With a body the size of a tissue box, this helicopter would partner with a Martian rover, and help the rover cover more ground in a day. Image: NASA

Another new technology receiving seed money is the Starshade. The Starshade would augment the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). WFIRST is a space telescope designed to study dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics. The Starshade would be separate from the WFIRST, and by blocking the light from a distant star, would allow WFIRST to image planets orbiting that star. The goal would be to detect the presence of oxygen, methane, and other chemicals associated with life, in the atmosphere of exoplanets.

An artist’s illustration of the Starshade deployed near its companion telescope. Image: NASA

The funding bill also directs NASA to consider forms of propulsion that could propel a craft at 10% of the speed of light. This includes Bussard ramjets, matter-antimatter reactors, beamed energy systems, and anti-matter catalyzed fusion reaction. The bill asks that within a year of being passed, NASA creates a draft reporting addressing interstellar propulsion, and that a roadmap be put in place for further development of these systems. The hope is that one of these systems will be in place for a trip to Alpha Centauri in 2069, which will be the 100 year anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing.

It should be noted that these numbers are not approved yet. Some of these numbers go back and forth between the levels of government before they are finalized. It would take a lesson on governance structure to explain how that all works, but suffice it to say that although they’re not finalized, yet, things look good overall for NASA.

Evan Gough

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