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NASA's Europa mission depends on who the next president is

Europa as seen by Galileo
Europa as seen by Galileo

The fact that the Obama administration, likely as a sop to Congress, has included $15 million in the FY 2015 NASA budget to study a mission to Europa has caused some debate in the media. It’s not so much whether the mission would be worth-while; it would be. The question is whether NASA, whose missions have been afflicted with a kind of ADD, will be able to carry it through in the decade or so that it will take to even launch the mission.

Joel Achenbach wrote a March 5, 2014 piece in the Washington Post to the effect that NASA may not do the Europa mission any time soon. It would be fairly costly, just under $5 billion, which would stretch the current austerity budget the space agency is saddled with. He also also points out that NASA has embarked on big space projects before, only to see them cancelled. President Bush’s Constellation return to the moon program was unceremoniously cancelled because President Obama was uninterested in space exploration. Thanks to an uproar in Congress, Obama proposed various iterations of a mission to an asteroid. However no one seems to like that idea and odds are more than even that it gets cancelled too by the next president, especially if he or she is a Republican.

Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle begs to disagree in a March 6, 2014 post. He points out that one Rep. John Culberson, R-TX is a big champion of the Europa mission. Culberson has managed to insert money for the project in both the FY2013 and FY2014 budget. The betting is that the $15 million that the administration has proposed will increase to about $100 million by the time the NASA appropriations bill for FY2015 becomes law. Culberson, by the way, is both a space enthusiast and is slated to become chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA in the next Congress.

The problem is that, sooner or later, going to Europa is going to cost a lot of money, which means NASA has to have a budget increase. The Obama administration has been remarkably stingy where it comes to funding the space agency and, with its eye on the deficit, Congress has not been willing to buck him in that regard. Congress can therefore want all it wants, missions to Europa, a return to the moon, or whatever. Unless it finds a way to spend money on these dreams, nothing will happen.

Everything depends, therefore, on who the next president is. If the president regards space exploration as even slightly important, the Europa mission may well come to fruition. It will take presidential leadership to enact the kinds of budget increases, in an era of persistent high deficits, that will be necessary to make such a mission happen.

The wild card is what kind of mission the Europa expedition is going to be. Thus far, in order to keep it as cheap as possible, the thinking is that the Europa Clipper, as it is called, would orbit Jupiter and make multiple flybys of Europa. However the heavy lift Space Launch System is being built and is looking for payloads. The SLS will have enough power to directly send a probe to the Jupiter system without the multiple gravity assists currently necessary. It can also send a probe that is heavy enough to go into orbit around or even land on Jupiter’s ice shrouded moon. Such a mission would cost even more money than currently envisioned. But it would provide a look at a strange new world that hitherto has been only seen from a distance.

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