Schiff sees red over JPL cuts

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) provoked a tense exchange with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a House budget hearing Wednesday on proposed cuts to Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars program.

Schiff grilled Bolden for nearly 17 minutes about NASA's plan to scrap two robotic Mars missions that would employ hundreds at JPL whose job duties otherwise end in August, after touchdown of the Curiosity rover.

Bolden touted Curiosity as evidence of NASA's commitment to exploring Mars and said the agency could scale back the Mars program without abandoning its scientific goals, prompting accusations of double talk from 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 (R-Texas).

Culberson said Mars cuts in the Obama Administration's proposed 2013 budget violate laws requiring NASA to abide by priorities — Mars exploration chief among them — set by the National Academy of Sciences. 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 said.

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. NASA needs to go back to the drawing board to come up with a different proposal.”

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