WASHINGTON — NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said the agency’s goal of sending human to Mars by 2033 remains on track despite concerns raised about future funding and independent assessments that suggest such a mission is unlikely without a sizable, long-term increase in funding.
President Trump’s 2018 proposed budget treats NASA relatively well compared to other non-Defense agencies. Even though the $19.1 billion would be more than $500 million less than what Congress allocated to the agency this year, other agencies would have to absorb much deeper cuts under the White House plan unveiled last month.
At two separate House hearings Thursday, Lightfoot told lawmakers the $3.9 billion in the budget proposal for human exploration would allow NASA to continue developing its two key pieces of hardware: the Orion vehicle that will carry astronauts into deep space and the Space Launch System rocket that Orion will ride on past the moon and toward Mars.
Both systems are scheduled to be tested: first, in an uncrewed flight in 2019, then with astronauts into lunar orbit, no later than 2023.
“The budget we proposed has got the systems we need in 2018 to keep making the progress we think we need,” he told members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
The budget proposal, which Congress is expected to adjust over the coming months, comes three years after a National Research Council report warned that any mission to take astronauts beyond lunar space is impossible without significant budget increases over time.
Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer said flat budgets over the past five years have cost the agency about $4.5 billion in purchasing power.
“So how can we argue that this is a long-term budget that truly reflects our robust commitment to space?” he asked Lightfoot.
“We have concerns about the out years but the ’18 budget is good for us,” the NASA administrator responded.
Democrats had concerns about other aspects of the budget as well, chiefly the elimination of the education office and cuts in Earth science programs measuring changes to the planet’s climate.
The budget proposes eliminating five Earth science missions designed to measure a number of global warming factors such as ocean ecosystems and carbon levels. The budget also would cut funding for Earth research grants and would terminate the Carbon Monitoring System, a project that NASA developed in 2010 in response to congressional direction.
Lightfoot responded that there are 20 other Earth science missions NASA is still planning to conduct. And Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who chairs the science committee, welcomed the change under Trump who has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by China for economic advantage.
“There are many other federal agencies involved in earth science research, but only one that promotes space exploration,” Smith said. “This budget reflects the idea that while NASA can continue to develop state of the art Earth sensing systems, it is not a piggy bank for funding climate activities already addressed elsewhere in the federal government.”
But some Republicans had issues with the proposal, including Hal Rogers of Kentucky who questioned the elimination of the education office when Lightfoot came before members of the House Appropriations Committee.
“The education programs hopefully have been spreading the word about NASA’s (accomplishments),” Rogers told Lightfoot. “I can’t understand why you would want to cut that.”
The administrator said NASA is trying to weave education outreach and promote space careers into other areas.
“I don’t deny that the (education) programs have been pretty successful for us but we felt like in the balance of things we could do this more effectively in a different way,” he said.