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House Science Committee chairman urges NASA Mars crewed flyby mission

Mars as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope
Mars as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas released a statement on March 26, 2014 in advance of hearings to take place examining President Obama’s budget request for science agencies in the federal government. Smith’s statement was wide ranging, but he reserved his most pointed criticism for NASA.

"Perhaps the greatest example of the White House's lack of leadership is with America's space program. The White House's approach has been to raid NASA's budget to fund the Administration's environmental agenda. In the last seven years, NASA's Earth Science Division has grown by over 63 percent. Meanwhile, the White House's budget proposal would cut NASA by almost $200 million in Fiscal Year 2015 compared to what Congress provided the agency this year.

"And The White House's proposed asteroid retrieval mission is a mission without a budget, without a destination, and without a launch date. Rather than diminish NASA's space exploration mission, President Obama should set forth a certain, near-term, realizable goal for NASA's space exploration.”

Criticism of the asteroid mission, which currently involves a visit to a small asteroid that had been previously directed into lunar orbit, has been pointed ever since the president proposed it in an April 15, 2010 speech, Smith has a better idea of what NASA’s first mission beyond low Earth orbit should be.

"Many experts believe that a Mars Flyby mission launched in 2021 is a potentially worthy near-term goal. A human Mars mission would electrify the American public, excite American scientists, and inspire American students.”

The mission Smith refers to started life as a privately funded and operated venture called Inspiration Mars, run by entrepreneur and private space traveler Dennis Tito. But the revelation that NASA’s heavy lift Space Launch System would be the best launch vehicle for the mission that would send two astronauts on a flyby of both Venus and Mars in the early 2020s would necessitate heavy NASA participation, which so far is not forthcoming. It is unclear how responsive NASA or the administration would be to Smith’s idea of an interplanetary voyage.

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