NASA lost key support to explore Jupiter's moon


One of the casualties of the 2018 midterm elections may be NASA’s plans to explore Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to have a warm-water ocean beneath an icy surface and, perhaps, alien life. Rep. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonNASA's Europa Clipper has been liberated from the Space Launch System Texas Republicans sound post-2020 alarm bells 2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program MORE, a Republican from Texas, an appropriations subcommittee chairman who championed efforts to explore Europa, was defeated at the polls by Democrat Lizzie Fletcher, a corporate lawyer. It was even the subject of a Culberson attack-ad.



Space News suggests that the first part of the mission, the Europa Clipper, is probably safe. Europa Clipper is on the NASA manifest and has the support of the scientific community. Efforts by Fletcher or others to cancel the probe that will conduct multiple flybys of the ice-shrouded moon of Jupiter would likely meet with stiff resistance and accusations of a war on science.

The second part of the mission, the Europa lander, may well be on the chopping block. The attempt to land on the moon of Jupiter has not been fully formed and without Culberson in Congress to support it, may fall by the wayside.

The Europa Clipper/Europa Lander missions are a NASA flagship mission that is due to cost several billion dollars when all is said and done. Partly, the Europa mission is so expansive because the probes have to be hardened against the intense zone of radiation that surrounds Jupiter’s moons.

Partly, the cost is increased because of the mandate to launch the Europa Clipper and Europa Lander on NASA's heavy-lift Space Launch System. The SLS has enough power to send payloads to Jupiter space directly, without time-consuming gravity assist maneuvers. However, the heavy-lift rocket will be very expensive to launch, in excess of a billion dollars a liftoff.

If the new Democratic majority in the House is disposed to make itself useful, it could look at some alternatives to exploring the icy moons of the outer planets. One idea would be to launch the Europa Clipper and Europa Lander on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or the upcoming Blue Origin New Glenn. Alternatively, the SpaceX Big Falcon Rocket could be considered as a launch vehicle. Enough money could be saved to allow for a second expedition to Saturn’s ice-shrouded moon Enceladus, which also may have a warm-water ocean teeming with life.


Speaking of Enceladus, the Breakthrough Prize Foundation is planning a private expedition to this moon of Saturn. While not many details exist, the idea seems to be to use a solar sail to take a small probe on a flyby mission, which is inexpensive, a little risky, but with a potential for some good science. NASA is intrigued enough, according to Space News, that it has entered into an unfunded Space Act agreement to provide technical support and planning for the Enceladus mission.

Lawmakers should offer legislation authorizing monetary support for the Enceladus mission and support the science of space that could have a lasting effect.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”