Europa Mission Gets NASA Approval Despite Politics

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Even As Next Steps for Europa Mission Are Approved, Politics Still Stand In The Way

NASA brass granted approval to the team working on the Clipper mission to carry on with the next stages of their plan to visit Europa. The agency has been talking about the famously icy moon since Hubble captured images of water jets spouting from its frozen surface back in 2012. However, the controversy that is the Space Launch System (SLS) may still hinder the Europa mission.

Failure to Launch

Most of the rest of the work on the Clipper spacecraft has been on schedule. However, the Space Launch System is so far behind schedule that it precludes a launch anytime soon. You may be thinking, “Well why doesn’t NASA just put it on a Falcon Heavy or other commercial rocket?” Well, that would be the politics part.

As I reported earlier this week, Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) chairs the committee that sets NASA’s budget, and he’s got a lot riding on the SLS. The SLS has been the Senator’s pet project for some time now. He was reportedly irate after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that the agency may scrap the rocket in favor of commercial options for Orion last week.

The Trouble With The SLS

The SLS was designed to carry human spacecraft deep into space. It was an ambitious project initially and with all of the delays and issues, it’s simply no longer a realistic option. Commercial rockets are developing very rapidly. Also, the Planetary Society succeded recently with a proof-of-concept test for light-sail technology as a means of deep-space propulsion. NASA has plenty of other options for deep space exploration that will cost less and be ready sooner than the SLS. However, the law says Clipper has to use the SLS for launch. Basically, the SLS is a fancy new Palm Pilot that was in development right as smart phones began taking over.

NASA’s been doing a lot lately to effect Jim Bridenstine’s vision to get the politics out of the way. Bridenstine said numerous times in the past month that politics are holding our exploration back. The White House has been heaping pressure on Bridenstine since April. That pressure seems to have motivated the NASA Administrator to seek maximum efficiency. 

While Bridenstine’s efforts are laudable, one only hopes he’s not burning the bridges he may need later. However Clipper gets into space for the Europa mission, the team is moving forward with plans that target its launch for 2023. Whether that happens on the SLS or on a Falcon heavy remains to be seen.

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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