NASA's Asteroid Plan Is Shot Down in House3 min read

The House Science Committee on Thursday voted to bar all spending on plans for a manned mission to an asteroid—rejecting the centerpiece of President Barack Obama‘s human-space-exploration program through 2025.

As part of a stripped-down $16.8 billion authorization bill for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—more than $1 billion less than the White House and Senate envision—the House panel approved language explicitly prohibiting the agency from proceeding with the proposed asteroid project.

The 22-17 vote, which had been expected, heightens partisan bickering over the future direction of NASA, an agency that for decades enjoyed strong bipartisan support and funneled thousands of jobs and lucrative contracts to states and congressional districts represented by key lawmakers.

Instead of backing the White House’s initiative to send a robotic mission to a small asteroid by 2016, tugging it into a new orbit and eventually sending a manned mission to bring home samples, the bill establishes priorities for returning astronauts to the moon, perhaps as soon as 2020, and ultimately sending them on to Mars.

The House legislation also requires NASA to lay out a new plan, incorporating international cooperation, to establish “stepping stones” to reach the Red Planet in 20 years or more.

NASA declined to comment on Thursday’s vote, but earlier this week a spokesman said agency officials were “deeply concerned” that House GOP leaders were pursuing cuts to White House budget proposals “that would challenge America‘s pre-eminence in space.”

Lawmakers and scientists opposed to NASA’s asteroid proposal have argued it was announced without any detailed technical study or clear-cut direction. Rep. Steven Palazzo, the Mississippi Republican who heads the space subcommittee, has said the agency hasn’t explained the budget, purpose or technical requirements of the asteroid mission.

The full Science committee in the House also approved a total of $3 billion—$400 million more than the White House requested—to develop a manned capsule, dubbed Orion, along with a new rocket to carry it that would be the most powerful booster built since the Apollo-era Saturn V. And the panel blocked a reorganization and deep cuts to NASA education programs sought by the White House.

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who has led the fight against the White House initiative, said the House legislation fulfills the congressional responsibility to set goals and “to take the initiative, make decisions and govern.”

The Democratic-controlled Senate is drafting an $18 billion NASA appropriations bill, but the asteroid mission also has run into criticism there.

The House bill includes robust funding for development of a new rocket and capsule to take astronauts into deep space, while supporting White House plans to rely on commercial rockets and spacecraft to ferry cargo and astronauts to the orbiting international space station.

NASA has been hurt by years of policy drift, tussles with Congress and lack of clear-cut goals for the next chapter of its development.

In April, when the White House rolled out its asteroid concept, it only sought a first-year, $100 million down payment for the idea. Industry and government officials have pegged the total bill at around $2 billion. But NASA faces a stiff challenge in identifying a specific asteroid as a destination and generating public support for the plan.

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Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

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