Prof. Steve Squyres ’78 Ph.D. ’81, astronomy, told a Senate committee on Wednesday that U.S. space exploration programs risk significant delays and setbacks because they are severely underfunded. Despite the importance of the issue, only two senators attended the hearing.
Squyres testified on Capitol Hill before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, along with a panel of experts that included the leader of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s latest mission to Mars, the MSL Curiosity rover program. Squyres is the chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, which advises the NASA Administrator on issues important to the agency.
Despite the recent successful landing of the Curiosity rover, the space agency is facing massive budget cuts, and the future of its planetary science program remains unclear. During his testimony, Squyres argued that the current NASA budget is insufficient to pursue a manned mission to Mars without risking “lengthy” delays.
In 2010, President Barack Obama called for a mission to Mars’ orbit by the mid 2030s, and a subsequent mission to the surface of the planet. However, Squyres said the agency lacks the funding to build crucial components for the vehicles needed to get to the planet.
“Without some means to develop or acquire the missing piece – either a deep space habitation module or a lunar lander – a decade from now NASA will be unable to do much more in deep space than duplicate the success of Apollo 8’s historic mission to orbit the Moon, more than half a century later,” Squyres said.
While the panel of scientists warned of the grave threat facing the agency’s future, only two senators, Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) attended the hearing, according to the Planetary Society, a space exploration advocacy group led by Bill Nye ’77.
Squyres also lamented NASA’s decision to withdraw from a series of joint rover missions with the European Space Agency to Mars in 2016 and 2018 due to budget cuts. He called such international collaboration the path that “may hold the greatest potential for bridging the gap between what NASA is being asked to do and what its budget allows it to do.”
“If no commitment to a Mars sample return mission is made … the result will be highly detrimental to the future of U.S. planetary science,” Squyres told the committee.