Congress Wants To Explore Europa To Seek Out New Life —And New Jobs

Illustration for article titled Congress Wants To Explore Europa To Seek Out New Life —And New Jobs

Earlier this week, the Planetary Society held a pep rally for Europa, where Bill Nye and climate change-denier House Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) set aside their differences to promote planetary science. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that a Europa expedition could pump millions of dollars into Congressional districts.

Illustration for article titled Congress Wants To Explore Europa To Seek Out New Life —And New Jobs

With its subsurface ocean and active plumes, Europa is one of the best candidates for life in our solar system. NASA has said that it wants to send a robotic probe to explore Jupiter's moon, and on Tuesday, the space agency announced that it had set aside $25 million for proposals to develop scientific equipment for the mission.

But, judging from the speeches at the standing-room only event, "The Lure of Europa," there are some influential people who wouldn't mind seeing a more aggressive timetable for the mission.

As Jeff Foust of Space Politics reports:

The audience heard a case for exploring the icy Jovian moon from members of Congress and NASA representatives…."We're confident that Europa is the next logical place to go" after Mars in the search for life in the solar system, said NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan, one of the event's speakers.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), arguably the biggest supporter for Europa exploration in Congress, was even more confident than Stofan that Europa harbored life... "The oceans of Europa will literally be seething with life. It's just irrefutable. It's so logical, it's so self evident."

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose district includes NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), also expressed interest in sending a mission to Europa, even if he didn't share Culberson's certitude about life there. "Now, after years of struggle against shortsighted budget cuts by the administration that affect not only Europa, but a host of other NASA missions as well, it looks as if the dream is becoming a reality." said of a Europa mission.

NASA has been studying concepts for a Europa orbiter mission as well as a "Clipper" that would perform multiple flybys of Europa …..NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld….outlined a hypothetical scenario where a billion-dollar mission could achieve only one major scientific objective while a Clipper-like mission could do four, albeit at about twice the price. "But if you look in your wallet and you only have a billion dollars, then you have to ask, 'Can I afford to wait or should I go now?'" he said.

Members of Congress like Culberson and Schiff, though, want to ensure that NASA has enough to do a flagship-class Europa mission. "We included language in this [appropriations] bill, and I'm proud to have been one of the drivers of that, to ensure that we have the money for the Europa flagship mission," Culberson said, adding he also inserted the report language specifying that the Space Launch System (SLS) be the baseline launch vehicle for it.

With NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in his district, Schiff's support for a Europa mission is a given. And, Culberson made it a point to say that he had inserted language requiring that, whatever vessel we send to Europa, it must be launched by NASA's new Space Launch System. That's because the Johnson Space Center is in his district. As he noted in a recent editorial:

With NASA's recent announcement of plans to move forward with the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), America now has the major elements in place to usher in a new era of human space exploration. In addition, Houston's Johnson Space Center (JSC) will remain a vibrant centerpiece of America's continued leadership in space… Houston is Space City, USA, and we plan to keep it that way.


Such is Culberson's commitment to keeping Houston "Space City, USA" that he has sought to block Elon Musk's private ventures. As Forbes reports:

"Paring down the number of competitors will help things along greatly because the funding won't be split."

Query: To which Party and State would might you attribute the above market-bashing quote? California Democrat? Independent from Vermont? Surprisingly, this socialist missive comes from the staff of a Conservative Texas Republican.

Supporting the elimination of competition – that notorious creator of delay and inefficiency – from NASA's Commercial Crew Program, Robert La Branche, senior legislative assistant to Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), uttered these comments to the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee.

The DragonRider…. is scheduled for testing of its crew escape system in a few months and could be ready to loft humans into space next year. This competitive approach puts unfair pressure on NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), a multi-billion dollar state-owned rework of the space shuttle that is many years from flying anywhere. What's a conservative congressperson to do?


Still, even Culberson's detractors acknowledge his bona fides as a genuine space geek. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle earlier this year he said:

I'm certain that there's life elsewhere in the universe. And I'm also certain that the first place we will discover life on another world is Europa. It will be discovered in the oceans of Europa. And it will be a robotic mission designed and flown by NASA that discovers it. About an hour and a half ago I got off the phone with Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titanic. We've become friends through my interest in science. He wanted to be remembered for something other than the discovery of the Titanic. So I introduced him to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and told him he should get involved in the Europa mission. I think he should help design a penetrator, swimmer, sniffer that would punch through the ice of Europa and find and photograph life in Europa's oceans. I think it's going to be a match made in heaven.

We're only going to have one chance at this in our lifetimes. We've got one shot. I want to make sure you and I are here to see those first tubeworms and lobsters on Europa.


"What keeps the United States economically in the game, in my view, is innovation," said Bill Nye at the Europa event. "So if you want to have innovation and keep the United States competitive, we need, or we can very easily, invest in space. And right now, the most bang for your buck — the most effective space dollar — is planetary science."