Pluto mission clings to life

Posted: March 3, 2001

An artist's concept of the Pluto-Kuiper Express spacecraft. Photo: NASA/JPL
NASA will continue to accept proposals for a mission to Pluto at the request of Congress despite a proposed budget that includes no funding for such a mission, agency officials confirmed Friday.

Colleen Hartman, outer planets program director at NASA, said Friday that Congress has directed NASA to keep open an announcement of opportunity (AO) for proposals for a revised Pluto mission even though President Bush's 2002 budget proposal includes no funding for the Pluto/Kuiper Express (PKE) mission.

Hartman said that NASA notified Congress on Wednesday, the day the 2002 budget summary was released, that it planned to close the AO for the Pluto mission and not accept any proposals because there would be no funding in the budget for such a mission. Congress responded by directing NASA to keep the AO open and allow proposals to continue to be submitted through the AO's March 21 deadline.

Hartman and others at NASA did not identify a specific committee or member of Congress that requested that NASA not close the AO. However, other sources indicate the staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee as the likely party that made the request.

"The clear message here is that proposals can be submitted and have to be in by March 21," she told Spaceflight Now. However, she cautioned, "all proposers need to be aware that the Administration does not support this course of action."

What happens after March 21 remains unclear, however. NASA originally planned to select several proposals for further study before selecting a winning proposal -- if any -- in August. NASA spokesperson Don Savage said that it might be several days or a week before the agency decides how to proceed under the present circumstances.

The AO itself was created in response to protests by planetary scientists and the general public after NASA stopped work last September on the PKE mission, citing growing costs. Scientists argued that killing a Pluto mission would deprive them of a rare chance to study the distant planet. Pluto is currently moving away from the Sun in its elliptical, 248-year orbit and many scientists believe that the planet's tenuous atmosphere will freeze out within the next 20 years. In addition, the inclination and orientation of the planet's rotational axis will put more and more of the planet's surface in permanent shadow in the coming years.

NASA announced in December plans for an AO on a revised Pluto mission, the first time the agency solicited proposals on a mission to the outer solar system. "Competition has worked quite well in other NASA space science programs, and I expect that, through this approach, we will see a number of creative ideas from innovative thinkers and organizations that have not been able to participate in outer planet exploration before," Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator for space science, said at the time. The AO, officially released in January, required missions to reach Pluto by 2015 and cost no more than $500 million.

The same activists who fought for PKE last year are gearing up for another fight to keep the mission alive. "Taking these actions without Congress having a chance to consider the proposed budget concerns us greatly," said Lou Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society, on NASA's original plans to kill the Pluto mission AO. "We will be engaging the Congress about these subjects.", a web site created by Pennsylvania high school student Ted A. Nichols II to rally support for a Pluto mission, also called on people to contact Congress. "Now is the time to act and aggressively write your own members of Congress and the Senate," wrote Nichols. "Please state you strongly encourage them to object to no funding for a Pluto mission, [and] that if we lose the 2004 Jupiter gravity assist opportunity, another opportunity doesn't exist for a decade."

Congress is not expected to act on the proposed 2002 budget for some time, as detailed data on President Bush's proposal is not due to be submitted until April 3. Based on past years it is unlikely that Congress will approve a final 2002 budget for NASA before September. NASA officials say they will be prepared in the event Congress does add money for a Pluto mission. "If Congress appropriates the funds," Hartman said, "we will be ready to proceed with the winning proposal."