NASA Being Forced to Fly Europa Mission

Well, this is interesting:

US Government Forces NASA to fly Europa Mission

What do we think of this? I’m of two minds. On the one hand, we basically have a situation where a single man in Congress has managed to change the direction of what would eventually amount to at least a billion dollars, just because he’s a space nerd. That doesn’t seem like a wise way to run a country.

On the other hand… It’s freaking awesome.

NASA is adrift. They’re being forced to build the Senate Launch Jobs Program System, even though they don’t have a mission for it. So, they go looking for one and come up with a plan to capture an asteroid? Really? That seems… timid. And Europa is sitting out there, possibly teeming with life. This kind of science is what NASA should be doing, instead of building heavy lift rockets to compete with private rockets already existing or well into development.

NASA’s budget has been whittled away by ‘other priorities’ because it came up with nothing viable to divert the funds from the manned program to after it was shut down. In terms of the percentage of the federal budget, NASA’s budget is about half of what it was in 1980. It’s been reduced by something like 1.5 billion dollars just since 2010. I like the idea of forcing it to deal with a big, complex problem. That worked with Apollo. And NASA needs a big, imagination-inducing goal if it wants public support for more funding increases.

It’s just gonna fly there and take pictures, right? Been there, done that.

Guessing a drill + cryobot would be a bajillion dollars and couldn’t happen for years and years.

Is there any other way to detect what’s on the inside? Like, land a sensor on one side and then blow up a bomb or crash something into the surface on the other? Or another lander that can send some sort of seismic pulse through the mantle. Something like that is how scientists studied the Earth’s mantle, right? Or was that more reliant on earthquakes?

I agree that another fly-by would be less useful than a landing. On the other hand, best to ascertain if there actually is life there or not before we start setting off bombs on it.

I’m a little confused by the idea that when the legislative branch allocates funds to the executive branch for a specific activity they encode into law, “forced” carries the appropriate connotation for this interaction.

Wouldn’t it be better to say, “NASA Directed by Congress to Fly Europa Mission”?

Would they call it a “robotic mission” if it was just a fly by?

We’ve recently discovered that the inside sometimes squirts out to the outside - we don’t need to drill through the ice - just intercept a plume (or land near one that has happened recently).

At first I read the thread title as, “NSA Being Forced to Fly Europa Missions” and thought, what the hell, they’re looking for aliens because they’ve run out of humans to spy on?

Interesting wording, and they even emphasize “by law” in the article. Has NASA been spending money outside the law? That’s a crime isn’t it, misappropriation of funds. That’s kinda like saying the Defense Dept is being “forced” to defend our country, under the law, by the expressed will of Congress (there’s more than just Congressman John Culberson that wants this).

If we find life there, will we call the them “Europeans”?

Can’t come any closer:

Missions are better than no missions, right?

A better way to think of it: A single man in Congress with a vision managed to convince a majority of the Congress that it is a good idea. Happens all the time in any government. He couldn’t have done shit about it without convincing at least 218 House members, 51 Senators, and 1 President* to go along with it.

*Optional, but then he’d have to have convinced a lot more Congressclowns to override the veto.

This happens to agencies all the time. It’s happened to NASA before. Congress appropriates the funding and can choose where it must be spent. The Space Launch System is an example. Congress created a mandate that NASA must use existing shuttle components, basically as a jobs program. NASA didn’t want to do that, but had their hand forced. They’re being forced to do it even though building SLS violates their own charter and their own claimed new direction in engaging private launch industries rather than developing their own in-house capability.

So if Congress is going to force NASA to do things, I’d rather see them be forced to do a mission to Europa, rather than to build a giant launch system that will be far more expensive than the ones that currently exist.

As for the science value, NASA had already planned to join with the EU in a Jupiter/Europa mission, but in 2011 it determined that it didn’t have the funds to meet the schedule it would need to hit. NASA’s role in that mission was to build a Europa orbiter that would study the surface in detail, perhaps collect water vapour from plumes and analyze it, look for upwells of water, scout for possible landing sites for a lander, etc.

The Russians had a tentative plan to add a Europa lander (or impactor, perhaps). A lander could use a drill to take an ice core sample and learn about the age of the surface, how fast it accumulates, what kind of chemicals are in it, etc. If it has enough energy, it could create a melter on a tether than could melt it’s way down a few meters below the irradiated surface and look at ice protected from bombardment to see if there are frozen microbes or how it differs from the surface.

There’s lots we could learn about Europa before we try some ambitious plan to penetrate the subsurface ocean. And in fact, we probably need a preliminary mission like this in order to gather the data we need to make a bigger probe more effective.

What LHoD said. Executive agencies don’t get to pick and choose their own directions - or, rather, they only get to do so within the scope of the laws passed by Congress, and the funding given them. If NASA says, “we want to go this way,” and Congress says, “no, go THAT way,” Congress wins.

With respect to NASA in general, I don’t see a big project on the scope of Apollo that really makes any sense.

When it comes to robots v. people, we people have a lot of advantages over robots down here on Earth; we evolved to function well in this environment. But in space, being alive is an enormous disadvantage, given the resources you’ve got to invest in a mission to maintain continuity of life. Robots, OTOH, can function perfectly well in a vacuum, subsist on a little bit of electricity, and can handle cosmic ray bombardment far better than we can.

Sending people into space has been an expensive hobby. We and the Russians got into it basically because of the Cold War. And even though presumably a number of nations could replicate Apollo today and get to the moon, there are good reasons why nobody’s bothering, not even the Russians.

So a program of unmanned missions to further our knowledge of the solar system would be a Good Thing, but I’d expect you’d have to send missions to half the moons of the four outer planets, plus a sampling of trans-Neptunian objects, to get to an Apollo level, simply because putting people in space makes space so much more complicated.

I’m not suggesting an Apollo-level effort, and neither is anyone else. Even an ambitious Europa mission would be less than 10 billion dollars - a small fraction of Apollo’s budget. A more modest one could come in for a price similar to Cassini/Huygens.

My mention of Apollo was regarding the success of directing the agency to do a very specific task, rather than letting it drift. Most engineering projects that fail do so because of poor requirements management. Apollo worked because everyone knew exactly what had to be done and what problems had to be solved, and what the constraints on the solutions were. The Shuttle and ISS were much more problematic because no one could agree on what they should be doing. Both became bloated white elephants.

And more specifically, the Shuttle was conceived as a way to transport people and payloads to a space infrastructure which failed to be developed, and the ISS was then (much later) conceived as a jobs program to give the Shuttle something to do and a place to go, which was finished just in time for the Shuttle to be retired, leaving the ISS reachable only by a foreign-supplied crewed launch service. This is the very definition of government waste; a poorly conceived, badly managed, increaseingly costly, meandering, and essentially pointless program that went no where, accomplished almost nothing that anybody was asking for, and proceded strictly on bureaucratic inertia rather than building on achievements and expanding practical capabilities.

I am fully in agreement with Sam Stone; NASA needs to be mandated to perform specific goals, and furthermore, those goals should be geared toward planetary exploration, expanding scientific knowledge of the Earth, the Solar System, and the visible universe (in that order), and should serve as a clearinghouse and technology development nucleus for practical space exploration and resource utilization technologies that are then transferred to private contractors to impement and use to the economic, social, and material benefit of citizens (all citizens, not just the small subset of space enthusiasts) and humankind as a whole. Running a jobs program for astronauts and contractors, performing supposed ‘routine’ missions to orbit of nebulous benefit, building space stations, et cetera, are all activities that are only suited to a bloated bureaucracy that exists as a trophy wife to the top bowler in the trailer park.


All very true. But that kind of directive – at least, when it consumes the entire space agency – can be a double-edged sword. James Webb famously disagreed with Kennedy’s politically inspiring but technologically short-sighted vision; he wanted to see a more systematic evolution of NASA capabilities that eventually had men landing on the moon as part of a larger coherent strategy of space exploration. Instead, everything from Mercury through Apollo was directed to one monumental effort which, as amazing and inspiring as it was, once it was done left NASA basically directionless. Webb was undoubtedly right but Kennedy was Prez. In perspective the real science has been done by missions like Voyager, Galileo, and the Mars rovers, and of course Hubble and the many other observational platforms.

I agree; in this case a Europa mission is well aligned with good science. Even granting that the possibility of finding life is probably remote, Europa is one of the most unique bodies in the solar system.

(And if by some off-chance life IS found, it would give a whole new meaning to concepts like “ice fishing” and “really expensive sushi”.)

Yes… “Robot” in this case doesn’t mean that a little wheeled vehicle gets out of the spacecraft and explores. “Robot” just means “No human is aboard.” The unmanned spacecraft is the robot.

Uh-oh. I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to mess with Europa…

Ooops, looks like ElvisL1ves beat me to it.

That’s like saying Congress is “forcing” the Department of Education to fund schools. Sure, it’s literally true, but that’s what Congress is there for. The executive agencies exist at its sufferance* and they have no missions beyond those assigned to them by the legislature.

*except for the very, very few mandated by the Constitution.

I’m trying to think of a downside to a Europa mission. Can’t really. We should be doing stuff like this and pushing the envelop. I mean, I’d love to see more missions like this, as well as ambitious plans for manned missions. Perhaps, if this goes well, it will spark public imagination and spur new funding.

I agree with the OPs assessment that NASA is and has been adrift, and that this is hardly likely to fix anything. But still…Europa!

Well, depends what we mean by “forced.” Was this “science nerd” congressman sitting around smoking a doob and decided we should go find life on Europa? Did he ask the people who would actually be carrying out the mission if it’s feasible? Or was a Europa mission 30th on their list of important and valuable things to do? How is this mission going to find life? Are there alien fish flopping around on the surface? Because, we sure aren’t drilling through 6 miles of granite-hard ice anytime soon, and radiation levels are pretty high too.