The Houston Chronicle conducted a December 20, 2013 interview with Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas. The reason it did that was that Culberson is the odds on favorite to replace Rep. Frank Wolf, R-VA as the chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. Culberson would be at odds with current administration space policy in that event.
Culberson is very interested in establishing some long term goals for NASA’s space exploration program and not only sticking to them but providing the money necessary to carry them out. His preferred path would be to return to the moon. When asked why, he said:
“The place the Chinese landed. I understand from talking to friends in the scientific community, is where one of the richest concentrations of rare-Earth metals is on the surface of the moon. The Chinese think in terms of generations and centuries. It was not a randomly chosen site. It was not done simply for the sake of Chinese nationalism. This was a strategic move on their part to attempt to lay claim to, and in the future exploit the mineral resources of the moon. They have already locked up nearly all of the rare-Earth elements on Earth.”
Culberson is not the first person to note the moon’s mineral wealth as a reason for going back. Others, such as Apollo astronaut and lunar geologist Harrison Schmidt, have mentioned helium 3, an isotope that might one day fuel fusion power plants. Paul Spudis, a planetary geologist and frequent commenter on space, points out the abundance of water ice on the moon, useful for making rocket fuel and sustaining future lunar bases.
While a cynic might point out that a return to the moon would benefit NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center, Culberson is also interested in sending planetary missions to Europa, and ice crusted moon of Jupiter whose sub surface ocean is thought to possibly contain life.
“I’m certain that there’s life elsewhere in the universe. And I’m also certain that the first place we will discover life on another world is Europa. It will be discovered in the oceans of Europa. And it will be a robotic mission designed and flown by NASA that discovers it. About an hour and a half ago I got off the phone with Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titanic. We’ve become friends through my interest in science. He wanted to be remembered for something other than the discovery of the Titanic. So I introduced him to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and told him he should get involved in the Europa mission. I think he should help design a penetrator, swimmer, sniffer that would punch through the ice of Europa and find and photograph life in Europa’s oceans. I think it’s going to be a match made in heaven.”
A Europa mission would almost certainly be conducted by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. In that Culberson brings an unabashed love for space exploration, transcending petty, political considerations.