Senate committee approves funding for Pluto mission

Posted: July 25, 2002

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a 2003 budget for NASA on Thursday that includes funding for a controversial mission to Pluto.

The full committee passed the budget during a hearing Thursday, two days after a subcommittee approved the proposal, part of a larger spending bill that includes funding for other independent agencies as well as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

An artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft. Photo: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)
The budget approved by the committee would give NASA $15.2 billion in fiscal year 2003, which begins on October 1 of this year. This is $200 million more than what the Bush Administration had originally requested.

The majority of this increase, $105 million, will go towards funding of the New Horizons mission to Pluto. It will be combined with $15 million already in the proposed budget for New Frontiers, a new NASA spacecraft program, to give New Horizons the funding required to continue work through 2003.

NASA had added no funding for the New Horizons mission in its proposed budget, released earlier this year, electing instead to fund advanced propulsion technologies that agency officials said could allow for faster, more efficient exploration of Pluto and the outer solar system in the future. However, there have been efforts in the scientific community and the general public to persuade Congress to add funding to the budget for a Pluto mission. Last year Congress added $30 million to NASA's 2002 budget for a Pluto mission, after NASA cancelled the previous Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission and attempted to stop a request for proposals for a new Pluto mission.

This week's Senate hearing comes less than two weeks after the release of a report by the National Research Council that prioritized planetary science spacecraft missions for the next decade. That report ranked a mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt as the highest priority among medium-sized missions, with total mission costs less than $650 million. The report also concluded that such a mission would have "clear advantages" over the highest-ranked high-cost mission, a Europa orbiter, in terms of technology.

Full details about the Senate version of NASA's 2003 budget have yet to be released by the Appropriations Committee. The committee did note in a release Thursday that the budget includes full funding for "for the Space Station, Space Shuttle and most science and aeronautics programs." The $95 million added to the budget that is not going towards New Horizons will be used for miscellaneous projects.

Approval of the budget by the Senate Appropriations Committee is only one step towards final approval of NASA's 2003 budget. The full Senate must vote on the budget, and the House version of the budget must also go through a similar process before the two are reconciled in a conference committee. The House is not expected to take up the budget until after it returns from summer recess in early September.

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