What NASA’s $1.3 billion budget increase means for JPL (Pasadena Star News)
Though NASA has not specifically allocated the unusually high $19.3 billion budget approved this month by Congress, one clear winner is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The omnibus spending bill increased NASA’s budget by $1.3 billion over last year and earmarked funds for two of JPL’s future robotic missions to Mars and Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
The Mars 2020 Rover, a follow up to 2011’s Curiosity rover, received $250 million, while NASA’s mission to explore the frozen moon Europa received $175 million. The funding sets aside $25 million for a possible lander on Europa, where NASA suspects giant oceans beneath the ice could contain evidence of life.
“It’s very positive from our point of view,” said Richard O’Toole, JPL’s manager of legislative affairs. “Those are two major missions at JPL and keeping them on track is very, very important to us and our future.”
O’Toole said NASA will outline over the next month how it intends to spend the money at each NASA center.
The budget keeps JPL’s robotic missions fully funded and on schedule, he said. Some expected NASA to end operations of the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, the bot trekking across Mars for nearly 12 years now, as early budgets zeroed out funding for Opportunity. But NASA has extended its mission for at least another year, according to Guy Webster, a spokesman for JPL.
The higher than usual appropriations are “almost unprecedented,” according to Jason Callahan, a space policy advisor for the Planetary Society, an advocacy group based in Pasadena. It’s members sent over 120,000 requests for an increase to Congress and the White House this year.
“JPL comes off very well in this budget,” Callahan said.
NASA received $1.631 billion for Planetary Science, nearly $200 million more than 2015, after years of cuts. The $250 million for the Mars 2020 Rover should give the space agency more room if problems arise down the road, Callahan said.
“It really takes the pressure off of that mission,” he said.
Congress set specific parameters for the Europa mission, which likely would begin with an orbiter flyby. Those parameters include that NASA launch in 2022 using NASA’s underdevelopment Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, a replacement for the now retired Space Shuttle.
That rocket system is the planned vessel for proposed human missions to Mars in the late 2030s. The omnibus bill includes an order that NASA use $55 million to develop a habitation module for deep space exploration by 2018, to replace the cramped Orion crew capsule that it uses now for short range trips.
Both the SLS rocket to be used in Europa, and the habitation module, would support NASA’s longer-term goal of putting humans on Mars.
That kind of long-term planning is the new normal for NASA, as it works within more limited budgets, Callahan said. Gone are the days of the Space Race-era funding, where NASA could rapidly develop technology for one specific goal, he said.
“It took them a number of years to figure out how to do it, I think they’re actually succeeding at this point,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, said the budget puts “America back on track for another period of sustained leadership in space.”
“After so many years of difficult struggle, and as a result of a bipartisan effort led by my colleague, Rep. John Culberson, we are not only back on the path of full funding for planetary science, but for NASA as a whole,” he said. “This is great news for Mars 2020, for the exciting new mission to Europa, and for the brilliant team at JPL.”
Source: Pasadena Star News
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