In the latest development in an ongoing dispute between Congress and the Obama administration, the House Appropriations Committee has passed a funding package that restores some funding to the planetary science budget, including money to help pay for the next rover mission to Mars and exploration of Jupiter's moon Europa.
The new Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations package includes $1.315 billion for planetary science in NASA's budget, close to $100 million more than the $1.217 billion the Obama administration had requested.
"This is a stern message to the administration. They keep sending us inadequate budgets, and we have to argue for these programs," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), a member of the committee whose district includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in La Cañada-Flintridge, where scientists have developed and operated many planetary science missions, including the Mars rovers.
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In an interview Thursday, Schiff said that the restored funds would help pay for two missions, in particular, that have been identified as high priorities in planetary science: the Mars 2020 lander, which will help scientists retrieve samples from the Martian surface; and planning for a mission to Europa, the ice-covered moon of Jupiter where scientists believe conditions allowing life may exist.
Schiff said the committee's passage meant that the bill was likely to pass in the full House, which should take it up sometime in the next week or two. Then it will need to be reconciled with a Senate proposal before it becomes law. "We're on a similar trajectory as last year," he added, noting that in the 2013 budget, the administration also cut planetary science funding, which was later restored by the House and Senate.
Worries over funding for planetary science have been ongoing for several years, with scientists even pitching a bake sale in 2012 to raise awareness about looming cuts. One worry, Schiff said, is that reduced funding will turn away the experienced engineers at places like JPL who know how to land rovers on Mars.
"Once we lose the talent pool," Schiff said separately, in a statement, "it will be extremely difficult to reconsitute."