Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) grilled NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a House budget hearing Wednesday on proposed funding cuts to Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars program, calling them a major step backward for the nation.
Schiff, whose district includes the JPL campus in La Cañada Flintridge, pressed Bolden for nearly 17 minutes about NASA's plan to scrap two robotic Mars missions that would likely lead to hundreds of layoffs at JPL, where the programs operated. Without continued funding, many Mars mission job duties would end in August after the touchdown of the new Curiosity rover.
But Bolden touted Curiosity as evidence of NASA's commitment to exploring Mars and said the agency could scale back the program without abandoning its scientific goals — an assertion that did little to assuage Schiff.
“That is a very Orwellian answer, in my view, that says the way to go forward is to go backward, the way to go up is down,” Schiff said.
He added that Curiosity should not be the end of the line for JPL's Mars team.
“Cannibalizing the Mars program, which gets closer to unlocking the secrets of Mars' past with each mission and discovery, is a major step backwards for the nation and for NASA....No amount of spin or rhetoric will change that fact,” he said.
Bolden also came under fire from Rep. John Culberson, a Republican from Texas, where NASA also maintains a heavy footprint in Houston.
Culberson said Mars cuts in the Obama administration's 2013 budget proposal violate laws requiring NASA to abide by priorities — Mars exploration chief among them — set by the National Academy of Sciences. If the proposed funding cuts aren't changed, Culberson threatened to block funding for other NASA programs.
“What amendment should Mr. Schiff and I put together, what portion of NASA funding should we withhold, in order to ensure you follow the law?” Culberson asked Bolden.
Bolden said he hopes to replace Mars missions in 2016 and 2018 with a series of smaller, less expensive projects in preparation for an undefined major Mars mission after 2018.
“We are not giving up on Mars. We are not decimating the Mars program,” Bolden told Schiff.
NASA will try “to find a series of missions that are decreased in scope, but accomplish the basic objective of setting up a subsequent Mars [soil] sample return mission, and I think we will do that,” Bolden added. .
During the nearly three-hour hearing, Bolden said NASA's top priorities are to develop new heavy-lift rockets to carry astronauts into space, lay the groundwork for U.S.-based
commercial space travel to the International Space Station and complete the infrared James Webb Space Telescope to succeed the Hubble.
Each of those objectives is slated to receive increased funding next year at the expense of $300 million in cuts to planetary science efforts.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, called Bolden to testify after rejecting his request two weeks ago to accelerate Mars cuts ahead of next year's budget.
The subcommittee will draw up its own NASA budget proposal for a House vote in the next several months, Schiff said in an interview.
“I think the administrator got a good sense of the subcommittee's dissatisfaction with NASA's approach,” Schiff said after the hearing. “He is trying to put a good face on a very ugly proposal.”