Europa — Love, Advocate, Obsession, Friend, Ally, Champion:
“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.”
Then, in the conservative Culberson, the planetary scientists found their champion. He yearns to reveal God’s creation — life — elsewhere.
“Life will be everywhere,” Culberson often says. “I believe the good Lord seeded the entire universe.”
Culberson added $43 million and $80 million to NASA’s 2013 and 2014 budgets, respectively, expressly for a Europa mission. Last summer, after NASA requested $15 million for the 2015 budget, Culberson upped the total to $100 million.
Now, in May, he had come to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to see how those planning funds had been put to use.
Culberson’s two-day visit was not a conventional VIP tour, showcasing the bells and whistles. His was meat and potatoes, numbers and technical details.
But he was still very much a VIP. Here at the California lab, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, the Congressman wasn’t called Mr. Culberson, or John, but rather “Mr. Chairman.”
Mr. Chairman pays the bills. Andfor Mr. Chairman the highlight of his visit came in Left Field, where Hand, Steltzner and other scientists and engineers spent a few hours going over the fine details of the Europa spacecraft and a possible lander.
Initially, the scientists had considered an orbiting mission to repeatedly fly by the moon, called the Europa Clipper, at a cost of about $2 billion. But Culberson encouraged NASA to be more bold, and consider adding a lander to deliver much more information about the world.
To land on Europa a measure of boldness is required.
For an additional $1 billion the mission could take with it a 650-pound lander, the scientists explained. Using NASA’s powerful, under-development Space Launch System rocket, the spacecraft and its lander could launch in 2022 and get to Europa in just under five years.
Once it nears Europa the spacecraft would be traveling at a speed of about 10,000 mph. To reach the surface safely, the lander must slow to less than 5 mph, and Europa has no atmosphere to help. So the lander will need to bring its ownrocket, and a lot of fuel, to slow down.
Back in 1969 the Apollo lander had Neil Armstrong on board to guide the spacecraft to the surface of the moon amid a boulder field. For the Europa mission, with an hour-long delay in communication, NASA will need to develop an autonomous lander to find a safe place to set down.
But after learning from Curiosity, NASA is up to the challenge, says Steltzner.
After they were done, all eyes fell upon Culberson, who sat in the center of a crescent couch. Before him the long wall of white-boards were covered by various drawings and calculations of the lander, rockets and Europa. During the technical discussion he had asked questions — “Where’s the magnetometer? You’ve got to have a magnetometer.” — and taken detailed notes on graph paper.
“Why go all that way if you’re not going to answer the most important question?” he said.
Culberson’s obsession with Europa has heartened the planetary science community, and he counts science luminaries such as Bill Nye, chief executive of The Planetary Society, among his allies. But there is also a concern that Culberson’s laser focus on Europa could exclude other promising targets, like Titan and Enceladus, both moons of Saturn.
Culberson had brought along a friend, Robert Ballard, the famed oceanographer who found the wreck of the Titanic and has developed cutting edge technology to explore the depths of oceans on Earth.
Culberson believes Ballard can help NASA develop a submersible to explore the oceans of Europa. This is a monumental task because somehow a probe must melt through miles of ice, and then face unknown icebergs and other hazards below. But Culberson believes NASA should fly a follow-up mission to the lander, with a submersible, in the 2030s.
Ballard does too. However, during the course of the briefings he became intrigued by the other worlds, especially Titan, around Saturn.
A deep-red Republican, Culberson is not well loved by NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.
Toward the end of the meetings in California Culberson put Green, the NASA official who oversees planetary science for Bolden, on the spot.
Green noted the $30 million requested by Bolden and the president for the 2016 budget wouldn’t allow the project to proceed fast enough to accommodate a lander.
“The budget for what the administration gave us is not …” Green said, before being cut off.
“Ignore that,” Culberson said. “Just ignore that. Pay no attention to it.”
“I’m going to,” Green said. “But there are other groups in the administration that I have to interface with that make it quite the challenge.”
Culberson shot right back with, “I need to know where there’s a problem because then I’ll just go write it into the statute.”
Two weeks after his visit to California, Culberson returned to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. He had written the statutes.
Culberson had increased NASA’s Europa budget to $140 million, from the president’s $30 million request. The law called for a 2022 launch and a “surface element.”
The budget also created a brand new Ocean Worlds Exploration Program, and provided a few tens of millions of dollars to begin planning missions beyond Europa.
Culberson doesn’t have the final say, of course. But who will stop him?
His budget will clear the House. Over in the Senate the analogous Appropriations subcommittee is chaired by Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama.
Shelby is a champion of the Space Launch System rocket NASA is building because engineers in his state are designing it. The expensive rocket won’t have many human missions to fly in the 2020s, so it needs other payloads to fill out its launch schedule. With multiple robotic probes to the ocean worlds, Culberson has them.
It’s also hard to see President Barack Obama, who is pro-science, opposing a budget designed to do more science.
All of which means that what Mr. Chairman wants for planetary exploration, Mr. Chairman is probably going to get.