House Members Want NASA to Develop Human Space Exploration Roadmap

Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to an astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth's moon. (Credit: NASA)
Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to an astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth’s moon. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (House Science Committee PR) – On Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on Space held a hearing titled,Charting a Course: Expert Perspectives on NASA’s Human Exploration Proposals.” Witnesses shared their viewpoints on NASA’s human space exploration plans – including a human mission to Mars – and the challenge of keeping programs on track through changing presidential administrations.

Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin (R-Texas):  “Today we find ourselves at an intersection.  Do we, as a nation, retreat from the cosmos, or do we take that next first step into the unknown? There appears to be consensus that the horizon goal of America’s human exploration program is to land on the surface of Mars.  But how will we get there?  What are the intermediate stepping stones on that pathway to Mars?  How do we avoid costly and avoidable detours? How do we ensure a sustainable program rather than a “one-off” stunt? And how do we ensure the next administration does not wipe the slate clean, erasing all the hard work of the last five years.

“NASA’s human exploration program has been through a tumultuous seven years. With a new President to be chosen by the end of this year, we must ensure that there is a constancy of purpose in our planning and a surefooted roadmap in place for the future.”

A full video of Babin’s statement is available here.

In particular, the hearing examined the Obama administration’s plan for its Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) in light of budget instability at NASA that threatens human exploration programs.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “The administration should develop solid plans for future exploration missions that foster support from the science and engineering communities. However, the administration continues to push plans for an uninspiring and unjustified Asteroid Retrieval Mission. The administration continues to force this mission on NASA without any connection to a larger exploration roadmap and absent support from the scientific community or NASA’s own advisory committees.

“Instead, the administration should follow the advice of the NASA Advisory Council and more fully develop its human exploration plans, including a human flyby mission to orbit Mars. There are many options, but without a roadmap to guide the agency, NASA will continue to be subject to indirection and proposed budget cuts by the White House. For its part, Congress will continue to ensure that space exploration will receive the funding needed to stay on schedule and on budget.”

A full video of Smith’s statement is available here.

Witnesses today testified to the shortcomings of the Obama administration’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission plan.

Dr. Paul Spidus: “The ARM offers no unique benefits beyond providing a place for Orion to visit. In terms of scientific and operational importance, it is barren of real accomplishment and irrelevant to future human deep space missions. And for learning how to use space resources, it can only perform rudimentary reconnaissance of the type already accomplished or planned by a variety of robotic missions, past (e.g., NEAR), present (e.g., Dawn) and future (e.g., OSIRIS-REx).”

The following witness testified today:

Mr. Tom Young, Former Director, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA; Former President and Chief Operating Officer, Martin Marietta Corporation

Dr. John C. Sommerer, Chair, Technical Panel, Pathways to Exploration Report, National Academy of Sciences

Dr. Paul  Spudis, Senior Scientist, Lunar and Planetary Institute

Democratic Member Comments

Members on both sides of the aisle and witnesses stressed the need for a credible plan for achieving the consensus goal of landing humans on Mars.

Ranking Member of the Space Subcommittee, Donna F. Edwards (D-MD), said in her opening statement, “This Committee’s inquiries during recent hearings have focused on the need for a clearly articulated plan and next steps, such as the Human Exploration Roadmap that the bipartisan House-passed NASA Authorization Act of 2015 directs NASA to develop. I recognize that this is not an easy task given previous flat funding levels, uncertainty over future budgets, and the need to allow flexibility in planning a multi-decadal endeavor.”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said, “We are not going to have a human space exploration program worthy of this great nation if we continue down the current path of failing to provide the resources needed to make real progress and failing to embrace a clear goal and pathway to achieving that goal. What we need now is a clearly articulated plan on how we will get to Mars.”

Members and witnesses discussed the budgetary issues associated with achieving the goal of sending humans to Mars, the need for a plan and discipline in following the plan, and the need to ensure the sustainability of the plan through the transition to the next presidential administration and beyond.

Congresswoman Edwards said, “I’m confident that a plan of sufficient detail can come to fruition, but we don’t have time to spare if we are to sustain such a challenging endeavor across the upcoming Presidential transition.”

Ranking Member Johnson said, “In just about one year, the nation will transition to a new Presidential Administration. Such transitions have, in the past, led to significant redirections in NASA’s human exploration programs. If that were to happen again, that would be a tragedy, and a wasteful one at that.”

For more information about today’s hearing, including witness testimony and the hearing webcast, please visit the Committee’s website.