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Senate Looks To The Future As Pluto Probe Wins Key Funding Support

Pluto by David Seal for JPL

Los Angles - Jul 26, 2002
Perhaps the single most significant chapter in the long-running saga of the possible 2006 US probe to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt has just been completed. On July 24, the Senate's Subcommittee for Appropriations to VA, HUD and Independent Agencies (including NASA) voted full funding for the "New Horizons" mission -- adding $105 million to NASA's budget specifically for the purpose -- and yesterday the full Senate Appropriations Committee affirmed it.

Details are not yet fully available, but support for the mission on the VA-HUD Subcommittee was said to be near-unanimous.

The committee markup of NASA's budget was not only enthusiastically endorsed by Subcommittee Chairman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who has a direct state interest via John Hopkins University which will manager the mission, but also by ranking Republican Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri.

The funding battle, however, is not yet over as the corresponding House committees won't vote on the issue until late August or early September, after the Congressional recess ends - and it's possible that they will not provide funding for New Horizons, forcing the issue to be settled during House-Senate budget negotiations.

However, the apparent strong bipartisan support for New Horizons in the Senate greatly increases the odds that the project will finally be officially initiated this year for launch in January 2006, despite fervent long-time opposition from both NASA Headquarters and the White House.

The key factor seems to have been official confirmation from the recent "Decadal Survey Report" commissioned by NASA itself that the planetary science community very strongly supports this mission -- contrary to earlier statements by NASA and the White House.

If Congress as a whole does vote funding for New Horizons, it's doubtful that the White House would veto NASA's budget solely to eliminate it. And since the mission's cost in all following years is substantially less than that for the later and more expensive Pluto mission NASA had advocated instead; its chances of cancellation later, once started, are extremely small.

Recently, the 7 kg of plutonium-238 within the spare Cassini "RTG" generator which New Horizons would use for electrical power was reassigned for use by a national security agency -- but the Department of Energy has been authorized to buy 6 kg of replacement plutonium at bargain prices from Russia by 2003, and will buy considerably more soon afterward.

Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, told "SpaceDaily" that not only is the project not endangered by this move, but the fresher plutonium will actually provide the spacecraft with 40 watts more power during its Pluto flyby and considerably prolong its later life, thus giving it the chance to fly by more smaller "Kuiper Belt objects" afterwards -- a second major goal of the mission.

The Senate emphasized that its intention is to make New Horizons the first mission of NASA's "New Frontiers" program of middle-sized Solar System missions -- the second probably being launched around 2009. (However, this fact is fogged in the Senate's official press release by verbal confusion; the release falsely refers to the New Frontiers program as "the New Horizons program", and to the New Horizons mission as "the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission".)

Nuclear Electric Propulsion Funding Unaffected
Contrary to some predictions, the committee is not planning to fund New Horizons by cutting funds for the proposed new Nuclear Systems Initiative.

The White House has strongly supported this new initiative by NASA that will see $46.5 million allocated this year in support of a decade-long program to develop a radical new "Nuclear Electric Propulsion" (NEP) system.

NEP will essentially be a miniature spacegoing nuclear reactor that can provide 100 kilowatts of continuous power to a set of ion low-thrust engines, allowing future deep space probes tremendous maneuvering ability even in the outer reaches of the Solar System.

The Initiative also proposed another $79 million to develop new and more efficient spacegoing radioactive electrical power supplies, such as a new "Stirling engine" system to convert the heat of a core of radioactive plutonium-238 into electrical power four times more efficiently than the current "RTG" systems can.

This would not reduce the total weight of such generators, but it would allow drastic cuts in the amount of plutonium they need -- good news from the viewpoints of both cost and launch safety.

In the end, the committees voted to cut only about $4 million from the NEP program, and $9 million from the Nuclear Power development program, stating that "the necessary technology will be slow to ramp up".

They also cut fully $30 million from NASA's Space Launch Initiative program, expressing concern that both it and the nuclear energy programs might cut into the money necessary for Space Shuttle upgrades (especially those connected with flight safety, which the Senators had expressed strong concerns about during their hearings).

More Money For Manned Space Safety But Not ISS
Besides the New Horizons funding, the Subcommittee and full Committee added a net total of $95 million to the rest of NASA's FY 2003 budget -- much of it in the form of home-state pork of the sort that Congress, in recent years, has shown increasing interest in bleeding off NASA's funds, even though much of it is only minimally connected to aserospace at all.

However, they did add $20 million to the Earth Science program, for "pre-formulation studies" of solar irradiance, ozone quantities and ocean vector winds -- expressing concern about "the potential for the [Bush] administration to diminish NASA's pre-eminent role in earth science and earth science applications".

This apparently indicates a feeling by the Senate that the White House is still understating the importance of research into global warming, ozone depletion, and other man-made atmospheric changes -- and this particular markup may thus be the subject of a major clash between the Senate and the Republican-controlled House.

The Senate, interestingly, made no changes of any sort in the Administration's request for manned spaceflight funds -- including funding for the troubled Space Station, which currently lacks the funds to complete it beyond a basic "core-complete" configuration which allows a permanent crew of only three people, not enough to do more than a very small amount of scientific research.

One aide to the VA-HUD Subcommittee said that any decision whether to expand Station funding -- and on how much to spend on separate upgrades to the Shuttle program -- must wait until NASA finishes a crucial set of reviews of the project, probably early next year.

So next year will likely see a huge and totally unpredictable fight over just what to do with the Station, which is, overwhelmingly, NASA's top-priority problem.

In the meantime, however, the main feature of the Senate's desired changes in space spending this year is unquestionably the New Horizons Pluto probe, which -- thanks to solid support from both the planetary science community and the general public -- is now very close to a launch that once seemed very unlikely.

Perhaps this indicates that the support shown for this mission by Congress represents support for the extended future of space exploration -- with many members of Congress planning to be on hand in 2015 when America completes humanity's first introductory reconnaissance of the entire Solar System.

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Final Pluto Showdown Looming
Los Angeles - Jul 22, 2002
The interminable on-again off-again saga of the proposed U.S. Pluto probe -- and whether it will be launched early enough to take advantage of a Jupiter gravity-assist flyby that would boost it at redoubled speed into the outer Solar System -- is, at long last, approaching its end. And the ending is likely to be bizarre, as noisily melodramatic as the climax of any grand opera, and entirely unpredictable.

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