Subcommittee Examines Next Steps for U.S. Human Space Exploration

May 21, 2013
Subcommittee Examines Next Steps for U.S. Human Space Exploration

(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space held a hearing to examine the possible options for the next “best steps” in human space flight and the extent to which each of these options would move the United States closer to a human mission to Mars.  The options include the Moon, a near Earth asteroid that has been retrieved and relocated to trans-lunar orbit, an unrelocated near Earth asteroid, or another destination.  Testifying before the Subcommittee were Dr. Louis Friedman, Co-Lead at the Keck Institute for Space Studies Asteroid Retrieval Mission Study; Dr. Paul Spudis, Senior Staff Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute; Dr. Steven Squyres, Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University and the Principal Investigator of Mars Exploration Rovers; and Mr. Douglas Cooke, Owner of Cooke Concepts and Solutions and former Associate Administrator for Human Exploration at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

A human mission to Mars is not attainable without significant scientific, technological, and operational progress and preparation.  One or more interim destinations have often been suggested as the logical path for developing and demonstrating those capabilities needed in advance of the more distant and risky venture of sending humans to Mars.  An interim destination could also serve as an important focal point and organizing mechanism for the human exploration program, as well as providing a vision and inspiring goal for the nation’s future in space.  Over past Administrations and the current Administration, the goal for an interim destination has changed. 

Ranking Member Donna F. Edwards (D-MD) said, “Human exploration is a big part of NASA and its inspiring mission. It’s also an important catalyst for advancing our nation’s innovation agenda and for demanding the types of skills and educated workforce that contribute to our nation’s economic strength. I want to ensure that others share in my excitement and one day experience the thrill of American astronauts traveling to and exploring a surface far beyond our Earth, and then returning safely home. That is something that the United States of America has not done in four decades, and I don’t want another four decades to pass before we explore deep space again.  Successive NASA Authorization Acts have authorized a “stepping stone approach” to human exploration… But before we look at interim steps, we need first to understand what it takes to get to Mars.”

Witnesses and Democratic Members discussed a number of issues including what critical technologies are needed to enable a potential human mission to Mars, the value of going to Mars, the scientific gain from potential interim destinations including an asteroid retrieval, how to garner public support for NASA programs, and potential benefits of international collaboration and what the U.S. needs to do to maintain its leadership in space flight and exploration.  The criticality of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion crew vehicle to any human exploration strategy was also discussed, including how funding issues have impacted progress on the SLS and Orion programs and how that will affect the timeline for a potential human mission to Mars.

Ranking Member of the full Committee Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), emphasized the need for stable investments in NASA.  She said, “We appear to be unwilling to make the investments that NASA will need us to make if it is to succeed.  And we are even failing to deliver the funding that we do provide on any kind of predictable basis.  That is unfair to the hardworking women and men of NASA and its contractor team.   And it unduly increases risk and winds up costing us more down the road.  Yet I’m afraid that we seem poised to repeat that pattern again as we consider this year’s authorization and appropriation for NASA.  We have just forced NASA to take a significant cut to its Fiscal Year 2013 budget as a result of sequestration, and some in the House seem prepared to extend those cuts into FY 14 and beyond.  If Congress actually carries through with such short-sighted cuts, it will make all of the earnest protestations of support for exploration that we may hear today sound very empty indeed.  I hope that as we prepare to move forward with our NASA reauthorization, this Committee, at least, will make sure that NASA has the resources it will need to carry out the very challenging tasks that this nation given it.”