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From Mercury to Pluto and Beyond: House committee holds hearing on space exploration

On Tuesday, July 28, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing entitled “The Exploration of Our Solar System: From Mercury to Pluto and Beyond,” to review recent planetary exploration successes and to assess new missions under development. The country’s leading space scientists also used the hearing to advocate for more funding for NASA’s space exploration program.

John Grunsfeld, NASA’s Associate Administrator at the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, testifying before the committee, remarked that only increased funding would be able to keep on track and increase the cadence of planetary missions.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the committee chairman, urged the Obama administration to “restore these crucial funds to the science and exploration accounts.”

The Science Committee’s NASA Authorization Act for fiscal year (FY) 16 and FY17 increased planetary science budgets by $138 million, restoring funds the Obama administration proposed cutting from planetary science budgets.

From left to right: NASA's Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, New Horizons Mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, Dawn Mission Principal Investigator Christopher Russell, Study Scientist of Europa Mission Concept Robert Pappalardo and Robert Braun of the Georgia Institute of Technology, testify before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on July 28, 2015

From left to right: NASA’s Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, New Horizons Mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, Dawn Mission Principal Investigator Christopher Russell, Study Scientist of Europa Mission Concept Robert Pappalardo and Robert Braun of the Georgia Institute of Technology, testify before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on July 28, 2015. Photo Credit:

“Funding levels requested by the Obama administration would slow the rate at which we can develop, build and launch new missions like New Horizons,” Smith said. “This committee’s bill, and the funding levels approved in the House, would allow NASA to keep planetary missions like New Horizons on track.”

New Horizons’ Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, who also testified before the House Committee, highlighted the discoveries from the Pluto flyby, noting that the mission has revolutionized our knowledge of this icy dwarf planet.

“It’s very clear we do not understand the interior workings of small planets,” Stern said. “Small planets should cool off, and yet [Pluto] has not. And this is a major challenge to the field of planetary science, to understand how this can be, and it’s a demonstration that only could be made by going to Pluto, which New Horizons has now done.”

The mission revealed so far the evidence of an internal ocean and atmospheric haze. Stern predicts that even greater discoveries lay ahead.

In addition to Stern and Grunsfeld, experts on the Dawn and Europa missions also testified to their progress and how additional funds might be used for those missions.

“The Dawn mission has achieved several important firsts in space exploration,” noted Christopher Russell, the Principal Investigator of the Dawn mission. “It is the only spacecraft ever to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies beyond Earth, and the only to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn is also the first scientific mission to use solar-electric ion propulsion.”

The scientists who are working on the Europa Mission, which is scheduled for launch in the 2020s, updated the committee on the project and outlined its goals. The mission will explore Jupiter’s moon to find out whether it could sustain life. The current plan envisions a spacecraft that would have an expected lifetime of more than three years and would orbit the giant planet on average about every two weeks, providing many opportunities for close flybys of Europa.

“NASA is formulating a project that could lead to fundamental discoveries about Europa. This is will be both an ambitious and an exciting undertaking. Just as with that graduate Carl Sagan course that I took at Cornell, this mission will be at the cutting-edge of science and engineering, and is sure to inspire the next generation,” said Robert Pappalardo, Study Scientist of the Europa Mission Concept, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Illustration of the Europa Clipper mission concept.

Illustration of the Europa Clipper mission concept. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Members of Congress also pressed the witnesses on how the uncertainty of funding affects the development of the next generation of scientists. They all stressed the importance of these missions in inspiring students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) studies.

“Planetary science is one of America’s crown jewels. A unique symbol of our country’s technological leadership and pioneering spirit, this endeavor has consistently demonstrated that the United States is a bold and curious nation interested in discovering and exploring the richness of worlds beyond our own for the betterment of all,” said Robert Braun, David and Andrew Lewis Professor of Space Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“In addition to informing our worldview, these missions are inspirational beacons, pulling young people into educational and career paths aligned with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the foundation of continued U.S. economic competitiveness and global leadership in a world that is becoming more technologically advanced with each passing year,” he added.

The witnesses also agreed on two key areas that especially need more funding: the cadence of new frontiers and discovery programs and research and analysis programs.

The committee’s ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) concurred with the witnesses, saying that the Congress also has a role to play in keeping NASA’s Solar System exploration program robust.

“We need to do our part by making sure NASA receives adequate and timely funding to support the development and operation of those challenging missions. And we need to make sure we are also providing the funding needed to develop the advanced technologies that will enable the future missions that will continue to rewrite the science textbooks,” Johnson said.



Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

Why does the congress have to be science investigators and engineers for NASA?
Just fund NASA as a grant and let NASA do the science and engineering.
They are really bad at representing people — how does congress think they
can system engineer NASA.

Cosmicray–Because each state has particular industries that employ voters and voters and legislators both limit their advocacy of particular programs to the scope of their own self interests. We don’t send representatives to Washington to write laws that are good for everybody, we send representatives to Washington to “Bring home the bacon.” That’s why space flight has been unnecessarily expensive expensive and, by extension, why we don’t already have colonies on the Moon and elsewhere.

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