Casey DreierSep 29, 2014

Planetary Society President Testifies Before Congress

Planetary Society President Dr. Jim Bell was one of the expert witnesses before a special hearing on solar system exploration in the United States House of Representatives.

The Space Subcommittee of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a well-attended hearing about the state (and fate) of NASA's planetary exploration program, as well as the ASTEROIDS Act, which would grant private property rights to resources mined from asteroids.

Planetary Society President Jim Bell Before Congress
Planetary Society President Jim Bell Before Congress Jim Bell, center, listening to questions from the Space Subcommittee of the House of Representatives.Image: Tushar Dayal

The hearing, Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act As A Key Step, was overwhelmingly positive about NASA's efforts to explore the solar system.

"Congress has made it clear, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, that we value the planetary science community and the important work they do," said Chairman of the House Science Committee Lamar Smith (R-TX).

Dr. Bell was invited as part of a panel of experts in the field of planetary science and space law. As a professional planetary scientist, Dr. Bell understands the major scientific questions of his field inside and out. As the President of the Planetary Society, he gets the importance of continued exploration for society. In short, he was a perfect witness for the subcommittee.

In his testimony [pdf], Dr. Bell pointed out that cuts now primarily impact future missions. The suite of spacecraft currently exploring from Mercury to Pluto were built and paid for with yesterday’s dollars, and their continued operation is a relatively small piece of the planetary budget. But the rate of new missions has decreased substantially, so as current missions age and end, there will not be replacements ready to continue exploring the solar system. In fact, after 2017, there will be no NASA spacecraft exploring the outer planets for the first time since the mid 1970s. We can minimize these gaps in exploration by funding planetary exploration once again, argued Dr. Bell.

Unique among the witnesses, The Planetary Society provided a few images that highlighted the best of planetary exploraiton, including Curiosity's selfie, a close-up of the asteroid Eros, sunlight glinting off of Titan's lakes, and, of course, an awestruck crowd captivated by the landing of Curiosity.

The hearing was a clear sign that The Planetary Society’s continued advocacy about the health and future of planetary exploration missions is working. That is a direct result of our members’ efforts and donations in support of our program. Little known fact: Congress, for the most part, does not pay for its witnesses to travel to D.C. to speak. The Society was able provide travel for Dr. Bell to testify in front of Congress because of the generosity of our members.

Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, has shown strong support for planetary exploration in both their monetary appropriations and policy authorizations. We’re working to develop similar support in the Senate, but we are optimistic that NASA is getting the message: planetary science is one of the most effective, affordable, and exciting programs of exploration.

"I hope that the Administration is paying attention to today’s discussion," noted Chairman Smith.

The Time is Now.

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