NEWS FROM washington » Adam Schiff

Planetary Science and the Great Adventure

In December, NASA launched its first unmanned test flight of the Orion spacecraft, which will eventually take astronauts to an asteroid and Mars.  Think about that for a second – what was only dreamt about in science fiction novels and films will become a reality within the lifetime of many of us.

But while this is an historic step in manned spaceflight, there’s still a long way to go before we can land an astronaut on the surface of Mars. The next test flight of the Orion capsule and the rocket that will carry it won’t take place until 2018, and a manned test won’t happen until 2021 or 2022. President Obama and NASA hope that we will send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and land on Mars sometime in the 2030s.

These exciting developments would not be possible without the path breaking work and scientific breakthroughs that we have had over the last several years, much of which is the result of work done by the brilliant minds at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Cañada Flintridge.

In 2012, the Curiosity rover landed on Mars after traveling 354 million miles, slowing to a stop in just minutes from about 12,000 mph. This amazing craft deployed parachutes in a thin Martian atmosphere and lowered itself onto the planet with a skycrane. Since landing, it has made a number of important discoveries that include evidence of flowing streambeds on Mars. And by the end of February, the Mars Opportunity rover – which first landed on Mars in 2004 – will have driven farther than an Olympic marathon. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s often referred to as the little rover that could, and did!

These efforts have been instrumental in helping NASA further understand Mars and gain some of the necessary information to safely land a human on the planet’s surface. And their importance has, in critical respects, been recognized by the White House, which included a big hike in funding for the Mars 2020 rover, a follow on to Curiosity.

At the same time, planetary science and JPL have been the victims of their own success. Certain spacecraft that were built so well they long outlived their expected lifespan but continue to operate successfully, have once again been zeroed out for funding. This includes the astounding Opportunity rover, which was built to survive 90 days on the forbidding surface of Mars and is still going strong after 11 years. Why the Administration would want to effectively shut down an instrument that is still providing such valuable science is inexplicable.

More troubling, the proposed funding for the overall Planetary Science Division is once again down for the coming fiscal year, and this is the seed money for all the exciting discoveries that are yet to come. In the last several years, we have had considerable success in pushing back against similar proposed cuts – and expect we will this year as well.

Last year, we were able to ensure that the present budget included adequate funding for planetary science, including $100 million for the Mars 2020 rover, something that will meet the decadal goals of advancing a sample return. We also appropriated $100 million for the Europa mission, which could be launched as early as 2021 – right when NASA will conduct a manned space test of the Orion capsule. And we will once again fight to assure strong funding for these missions and the entire planetary science portfolio.

As Edwin Hubble, the American astronomer whose name adorns the iconic telescope, once said: “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.”

Let the adventure go on.

Rep. Adam Schiff represents California’s 28th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.