The Planetary Society Comments on NASA '04 Budget Proposal


On Monday, February 3, the Administration released its proposed FY2004 budget for NASA. The proposal was submitted in the midst of dealing with the tragedy of the Columbia accident. We extend to the Administrator and all of those at NASA our support in dealing with the tragedy. We pledge our support for NASA's determination to correct the problems that caused the accident and to continue a vigorous space program. Our comments on the budget are restricted here to the planetary program.

The FY2004 budget contains several important proposals for planetary exploration. The Administration has followed up its proposal in the FY2003 budget (still not passed by this Congress) to develop nuclear power and propulsion technologies with a new proposal to develop a mission to Jupiter that would provide the first test of a nuclear-electric propulsion system. The Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) would successively orbit the outer three Galilean satellites, Callisto, Ganymede and Europa over a ten-year mission, exploring these large, fascinating satellites and searching for subsurface oceans.

The propulsion system developed for the JIMO mission would provide the next giant leap in our ability to explore the Solar System and beyond. Once developed and flown, this system could carry previously unrealizable missions to the outer solar system, such as a Titan orbiter with probes and balloons, an orbiter of Neptune and Triton, and an extensive tour to orbit many main belt asteroids successively. We applaud the NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe for his boldness and commitment to the exploration of space beyond Earth orbit.

The budget also contains a proposal to develop optical communications for planetary spacecraft as an alternative to radio. The first application of this technology will be on the Mars 2009 mission, and will provide streaming video rates from Mars to observe events as they unfold in time, instead of viewing the occasional snapshots as we do now. This proposal provides for the communications technology that will be needed to complement the power and propulsion technologies required to reach this new age of planetary missions.

The budget also includes funding for the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission as the first in the line of New Frontiers missions. The Planetary Society successfully campaigned last year for the addition of this mission to NASA's FY2003 budget. Unfortunately, Congress has so far failed to pass an FY2003 budget, which puts FY2003 funding for the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission at risk. We place a high premium on the New Frontiers line of medium-cost missions, in addition to the highly successful Discovery line of low-cost missions, because we are cautious about the pace of nuclear propulsion technology development. This mission line will sustain the planetary flight program while nuclear technologies are being developed and can provide an alternative path to Europa, if necessary.

The Mars Exploration program is also fully supported in this budget, which provides for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2005, a Mars Scout mission in 2007, the Mars Science Lander in 2009, and introduces a Mars telecommunications satellite for 2009. Another benefit of the nuclear initiative is the development of an advanced radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) for the 2009 mission, which will enable the spacecraft to operate on the surface for years instead of months.

This proposed budget demonstrates that the United States' robotic Mars Exploration Program is vigorous, but it still needs to adopt a long-term, multi-decadal strategy. The Planetary Society advocates the goal of establishing a permanent presence on Mars by building one or more robotic outposts on Mars to prepare for the eventual human exploration of the planet.

The Administration budget also is notable for proposing a Human Research Initiative. Its purpose is to prepare astronauts for flights exceeding 100 days. Since the only purpose for such extended flights is for exploration beyond Earth orbit, we regard this as another welcome commitment to the future of planetary exploration.

The President's budget is only a proposal to Congress. The months ahead will see hearings and debates about the budget, in the context both of the Columbia disaster and of the broader budgetary demands of the country's foreign and domestic policies. We hope Congress acts more quickly and responsibly than it did last year in passing a budget on time. We will keep our members informed and involved in support of space exploration.

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