Europa Lander, SLS Dominate NASA Budget Hearing

Go Ahead. Attempt a Landing Here! Artist's Concept / Credit NASA

Go Ahead. Attempt a Landing Here!
Artist’s Concept / Credit NASA

The House appropriations sub-committee which funds NASA held a hearing yesterday regarding the Administration’s FY-2017 budget request.


The Administration request for FY 2017 is $18.262 billion. NASA says that the proposed budget is really $19.025 billion because it includes $763 million from other sources. The Congressional appropriation (what NASA actually received) for FY 2016 was $19.285 billion.

The Discussion

As has become common during the Obama Presidency, neither party is particularly pleased with the request, and in particular the inclusion of funds coming from sources which have virtually no chance of falling into place. As usual, Spacepolicyonline has the detailed breakdown, but the basic facts follow a familiar theme.

Congress is worried about the proposed launch date for the second flight of SLS (EM-2) and wants more money for the program in general. And on a related issue, the subcommittee chairman Frank Culberson (R-Tx) is very passionate about a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, and wants to see both an orbiter and lander. He is also rather adamant that they launch on SLS, whereas NASA does not want to commit to a launch vehicle at this point.

Given a long history of cost overruns on new and technologically challenging missions such as the Mars Science Laboratory and James Webb Space Telescope, the Europa probe, which could form the beginning of a proposed Ocean Worlds program to explore other subsurface oceans in the solar system is one which is as financially risky as it is scientifically fascinating.

From SPO:

“The directive to build a lander as well as an orbiter is controversial because of the additional costs that would be incurred and the technical challenges involved.   Today Bolden cautioned that the best approach would be to follow the traditional pattern for NASA’s planetary exploration pursuits by first sending an orbiter to obtain detailed information and then a lander.  He estimated that it would take 2 years to map Europa’s surface sufficiently to determine the best landing site.  Another concern is launching an orbiter-lander combination on a single launch vehicle such as SLS since that would risk both spacecraft.   Launching the two separately could solve both problems — sending the orbiter first and the lander later.   Bolden said the decision on how to proceed would be made at the time of the mission’s Preliminary Design Review (PDR) in 2018, but “my strong recommendation is that we separate them to optimize the chances of being successful with both.”

The other point of debate was the continuing back and forth regarding the funding for a human-rated Enhanced Upper Stage for SLS to supplant the woefully underpowered Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) currently slated to perform the first two missions, including EM-2 which will carry crew, and has a “no later than” date of 2023.

Again, from Marcia Smith’s breakdown at SPO summarizing Administrator Bolden’s statements:

“NASA has committed to launching EM-1 in 2018 and EM-2 in 2023, but Bolden repeatedly says that NASA is working towards a 2021 launch for EM-2 using the additional money Congress provides.   Today he stressed that NASA is looking not just at those two launches, but at all the launches needed over the next decade for the “Proving Ground” phase of deep space human exploration in cis-lunar space.  NASA plans several SLS/Orion launches to the vicinity of the Moon to test systems and human adaptation to long duration flight further from Earth than the relative safety of low Earth orbit.  Bolden said that any money Congress provides above the request would be spent on buying down risk and buying long lead items for the program as a whole, not just EM-1 and EM-2, but it could lead to an EM-2 launch date earlier than 2023.”

Note: Regarding the upper stage issue, it is worth noting that only three years ago, NASA mothballed the J-2X upper stage engine for SLS after spending more than $1 billion on the grounds that it was “overpowered.” NASA’s defense of that decision is summarized in this article, and focuses on the fact that the J2-X program began under Project Constellation.


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