The days of U.S. leadership in space exploration could be coming to an end, as lawmakers expressed growing fears at a Capitol hearing Tuesday that the nation's fiscal mess could derail two highly anticipated Mars missions.
NASA continues to plan for joint endeavors with the European Space Agency (ESA), the first in 2016 and another in 2018, in the hopes the money will be there. But the White House Office of Management and Budget has yet to confirm that funding for those missions will be available, and experts told the hearing they fear that European allies could soon abandon preparations for a joint effort and strike out on their own, or join forces with the Russian space program.
The ESA is expected to hold off on a decision until February, when the Obama administration unveils its fiscal 2013 budget. But if the European agency doesn't have a clear answer by then, it could walk away.
"Science in this nation would suffer because we would no longer have the ability to do cutting-edge research," said Steve Squyres, a Cornell University scientist and chairman of the Committee of Planetary Science Decadal Survey, a blueprint of the nation's long-term goals in space exploration.
Members from both parties on the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee expressed anger and bewilderment at the possibility of the U.S. ceding control of Mars exploration to Europe or Russia.
Mr. Squyres and others pointed a finger directly at the White House, charging that the Obama administration's unwillingness to commit to the partnership with ESA is putting both missions in serious jeopardy.
OMB officials were invited to the hearing but did not attend. A spokesman for the agency said such an appearance would be "highly unusual" because the budget process is ongoing and no final decisions have been made.
But NASA and its European partners need financial assurances soon to begin preparing for the first mission, the launch of a satellite in 2016. The 2018 mission is viewed as even more critical and would put a robotic rover on the Red Planet and eventually return soil samples to Earth - samples needed by researchers who believe microscopic life could have once existed on or beneath the planet's surface.
In the past, delaying the missions for financial reasons would not have been a death knell for the projects. But since NASA's space shuttle program was put out to pasture earlier this year, the agency is reliant on other nations for transport, making cooperation and coordination in the years leading up to the launch much more important.
"We need each other more than ever before. This is a long-term partnership," Jim Green, NASA's planetary science division director, told the subcommittee.
Mr. Green stressed that the administration has not formally informed NASA that the missions will be scrapped, and the agency continues to operate under the assumption they will be carried out on schedule. But he and others realize that with the federal government searching for ways to cut costs, multibillion-dollar Mars missions could be jettisoned.
The OMB decision could be a make-or-break moment for NASA. Rep. Steven Palazzo, Mississippi Republican and chairman of the space subcommittee, said the agency's credibility likely will take a major hit if it is forced to back out.
"If not resolved quickly, I am deeply worried that NASA will be viewed by our international partners as an unreliable, schizophrenic agency," he said. "NASA could be left to fly its own missions. Meanwhile, other international space agencies will collaborate, and in time, they may well be able to fly space missions that were once the domain of NASA."
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