WASHINGTON – Thrilled by a historical flyby of Pluto, NASA is seeking funding for future missions and to finance continued analysis of data from the fascinating dwarf planet.
“People love exploration, that’s the take-away we got from the Pluto flyby,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, which sped within 7,800 miles of Pluto two weeks ago. “But the data has no meaning if there’s no further research and analysis.“
At a hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Tuesday, witnesses from NASA said they still don’t have enough money to properly analyze the enormous amount of information coming back from the New Horizons spacecraft. It will take up to 16 months for all of the data from the Pluto flyby to be downloaded, according to NASA.
“The Obama administration has consistently cut funding and deprioritized NASA space exploration and planetary science,” said Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin, R-Texas. “It is imperative that Congress continue to reject the administration’s cuts and support a well-funded exploration program.”
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of House Science Committee, said the White House’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request sought to cut funding for planetary science by $77 million from 2015 levels. “Funding levels requested by the Obama administration would slow the rate at which we can develop, build and launch new missions like New Horizons,” said Smith.
President Barack Obama celebrated the accomplishment. On July 14, the president Obama tweeted in his official Twitter account: “Pluto just had its first visitor! Thanks @NASA — It’s a great day for discovery and American leadership.”
The New Horizons’ Pluto flyby was viewed as a remarkable step for humankind because the only images of Pluto previously came from the Hubble Space Telescope, and they were vague. But now scientists have seen high-resolution images showing flowing ice and haze on Pluto, suggesting the dwarf planet’s potential to support life.
But some critics say NASA spends too much money and time on space exploration for too little reward. According to the committee, despite the decrease in funding, NASA is still seeking $5.28 billion in its 2016 for its Science Mission Directorate, which conducts scientific exploration by observing Earth from space and visiting other bodies in the solar system and beyond.
For the New Horizons mission in particular, the committee said the voyage cost $700 million, including spacecraft and instrument development, data analysis, education and public outreach, mission operations and launch vehicles.
But scientists said it would have been more expensive if NASA had used the launch vehicle it intended to launch at the outset—the Titan IV rockets, which cost $400 million each. The final launch vehicle was an Atlas V.
The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between the Boeing Company and Lockheed Martin, said Atlas V rockets are cheaper than Titan IV. A lower-end mission utilizing the Atlas V would cost $164 million, and the average price of a space mission, accounting for all current firm contracts for Atlas and Delta launch services, is $225 million.
While the New Horizons mission worked to limit its budget, a report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General said the agency has an inconsistent record of keeping its science projects on budget and schedule. That’s an issue NASA must address as it plans missions to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and other destinations.