Mars Descent Imager principal investigator Michael Malin, center, Mars Science Laboratory mission director Jennifer Trosper, left, and MSL deputy project scientist Joy Crisp discuss an image sent by the Mars Rover Curiosity showing the heat shield falling away from the Rover as it descended toward the surface of Mars. (Robyn Beck / AFP via GettyImages)
WASHINGTON — The Curiosity rover’s impressive arrival on Mars couldn’t have come at a better time for NASA.
The agency, facing budget cuts, increased congressional scrutiny and questions about its direction since the shuttle program ended last year, has worked to remind skeptics the U.S. space program deserves continued support and investment.
Now NASA has two high-profile triumphs to back up those words: Curiosity’s perfectly choreographed landing on Monday, and May’s successful berthing of a SpaceX vehicle at the International Space Station, a first for a commercial company.
“Clearly the success of Curiosity got a lot of people’s attention,” said Roger Launius, a senior curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington and a former NASA historian. “Having now done it, they have a lot of right to say, ‘Look, we can really accomplish the things we’ve been asked to do by the American public.’”
But Launius and other space experts caution NASA’s recent successes, remarkable as they are, don’t change the fiscal climate that is compelling President Obama and Congress to constrain the size of the federal government.
If lawmakers are unable to agree on a deal to reduce the deficit cut at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years, automatic spending cuts at almost every federal program will take effect in January.
NASA has done relatively well in recent budgets, considering how much other programs have been slashed.
Lawmakers are expected to approve about $17 billion for the agency in fiscal 2013, which is about what NASA got this year. The new budget should include money for NASA’s top priorities: a manned mission to Mars powered by a heavy-lift rocket, the launch of a powerful new space telescope, and the Commercial Crew Program designed to replace the shuttle with privately developed vehicles.
But lawmakers are focused more closely than ever on making sure NASA spends that money as they say it should.
Last year, Congress authorized an independent commission to review the agency’s strategic direction. The findings are expected by the end of this year.
Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said in a June 27 letter to commission chairman Albert Carnesale that the agency’s direction had reached “a new low” under the Obama administration. He asked the panel to consider whether structural changes are needed at the agency.
Wolf has been critical of the agency’s management, notably its handling of the Commercial Crew Program.
John Logsdon, founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said NASA has done a remarkable job, considering it’s been “jerked around a lot over the past decade” by the shifting priorities of different administrations and tough choices made to accommodate limited budgets.
And recent scientific successes won’t shield the agency from criticism, he said.
“Faith in the agency in terms of its technical competence is different than faith in the agency in terms of knowing where it’s going,” he said. “The successes reinforce that NASA’s a very competent organization, but they don’t have much to do with the broader debate of the future direction of the U.S. space program.”
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., one of NASA’s most ardent supporters, said the agency’s critics have always questioned why money is spent on space exploration when the nation has so many needs.
He said congressional lawmakers recognize the program’s myriad benefits for humans, but it doesn’t hurt that NASA can point to the recent breakthroughs represented by the SpaceX docking and Curiosity’s landing on Mars.
“The successes in the space program certainly give a great deal of impetus and enthusiasm to our space program,” Nelson said. He said that makes it much easier to justify NASA’s funding.
Launius said Curiosity’s landing might help boost support for the Mars science mission, which has had to sacrifice due to cost overruns associated with the James Webb Space Telescope. But he doesn’t expect NASA to escape the budgetary pain other parts of the government could face later this year.
“I kind of have a hard time seeing how that would (happen) just because you have a couple of admittedly quite excellent successes,” he said. “But it’s certainly realistic to think that most (lawmakers) are going to be positively affected by this stuff.”
Ledyard King writes for Gannett Washington Bureau.