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Senate Committee Hearing Raises Beyond-LEO Concerns

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing last month on "The Path from LEO to Mars," which examined NASA's exploration portfolio, both robotic and human, beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) to the surface of Mars.

Steve Squyres, Ph.D., testified that there are two areas of concern regarding getting beyond LEO and eventually to Mars. According to Squyres, the first is the pay-as-you-go approach, which can result in slow progress if funding levels are not adequate. He said there has never been a human-rated launch system in NASA's history that has had a flight rate as low as the one that is currently projected for SLS and Orion and, with such a low flight rate, it could be challenging to keep flight teams sharp and mission-ready.

Secondly, he said other vehicles are needed in addition to SLS and Orion to complete missions beyond LEO. For example, Squyres said that an asteroid mission would require hardware that's capable of providing crew support in deep space for many months and a lunar surface mission would require a lunar lander. Squyres shared his concern that there is no funding in NASA's budget to develop such vehicles. With additional capabilities needed to achieve the exploration goals outlined in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress asked whether NASA's current mission was too broad to be able to fully fund the priorities. The panel pointed to international collaboration as a possible solution to building the additional capabilities needed and reducing the total burden on NASA.

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