GOP: NASA on 'journey to nowhere'

GOP: NASA on 'journey to nowhere'
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Congressional Republicans are pressing NASA for a more detailed plan to put an astronaut on Mars, warning that agency’s lack of specifics jeopardizes the program.

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) criticized the 36-page "Journey to Mars" report that NASA released this week, suggesting it was substance-free.

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"It's just some real pretty photographs and some nice words. That is not going to do it," Smith said at a Friday hearing on NASA's deep-space budget. 

Interest in Mars is soaring, thanks to a blockbuster film and NASA’s discovery of flowing water on the planet. But Smith said a mission to the Red Planet couldn’t really get off the ground until NASA provides firm details about the budget and the deadlines that would be set.

"This [report] sounds good, but it is actually a journey to nowhere until we have that budget and we have that schedule and we have the deadlines," Smith said.

GOP members of the Science Committee say the Obama administration is at fault for the lack of progress, because the administration has attempted to peel dollars away from NASA's deep-space program. Republicans laud NASA for attempting to stay on track amid the uncertainty.

Deep space is one area of the federal budget where some Republicans want to increase spending. But President Obama's 2016 budget would cut funding for the deep-space program by nearly 12 percent below current funding levels, and Republicans charge that they have had to ignore requests for funding decreases in the past.  

Republicans blame the administration's budget proposals, which NASA uses as a roadmap, for the one-year delay in the first launch of the new rocket known as the Space Launch System (SLS) and a recently predicted two-year delay of a test of the rocket attached to the crewed Orion exploration vehicle. 

"The Obama administration cannot continue to claim that it prioritizes Mars exploration if it refuses to support the programs that will get us there," Smith said. 

The administration has repeatedly battled with Congress over priorities in the NASA budget, including funding for more Earth-based research and greater support of the commercial shuttle program to taxi astronauts to the International Space Station. 

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), who is running for Senate, scolded Republicans for not inviting NASA officials to the hearing Friday to defend the apparent delays.

NASA did not respond to a request for comment. 

Other Democrats said some NASA delays could be the result of spending caps and the continuous budget standoffs in Congress.  

"If this Congress is looking for reasons why NASA exploration program faces potential delays, we need to look no further than ourselves right here on this committee," Ranking Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas) said. 

"Too many times in recent years, NASA's had no idea when it would actually get an appropriation, when it would actually be reauthorized, whether that appropriation would be for more than a few months or whether they may even have to suspend their work due to government shutdown." 

The NASA report released Thursday maps out decisions the agency has already made, such as developing the SLS rocket and setting plans for a mission to reach an asteroid before undertaking the Mars mission. 

It also outlined decisions to be made in the next few years, like creating a new suit for astronauts and selecting an in-space transportation system. Other decisions for the next decade include further human space missions and the design of Mars surface habitats and power generators.   

A specific deadline for humans to reach the planet by the 2030s was not offered. 

The report's few references to a budget note that NASA expects its plans to be "implementable in the near term" with current budget levels, and it expects more funding as the economy grows.

"This strategy strikes a balance between progress toward horizon goals, near-term benefits, and long-term flexibility to budgetary changes, political priorities, new scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and evolving partnerships," according to the report.