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BY DAMON POETER, PC Magazine

Legislators on Thursday grilled NASA's top official about the possible impact of the Crimea crisis on relations with the Russian space agency, and criticized proposed missions to capture a near-Earth asteroid and mount a manned expedition to Mars.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden answered those questions and more during a House Subcommittee on Space hearing about the space agency's 2015 budget. NASA is asking for about $17.5 billion to operate next year, some $700 million more than President Barack Obama has proposed.

The situation in the Crimean Peninsula, where Russia has effectively annexed territory belonging to Ukraine, was a hot topic at the budget hearing, according to a report from the Planetary Society.

NASA currently relies on Russia's Roscosmos space agency to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) with Soyuz spacecraft. Subcommittee members asked Bolden about alternative plans should strained relations between the United States and Russia further erode.

Bolden responded by saying that "the NASA-Roscosmos relationship has endured previous political crises, such as the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008," according to the Planetary Society. "Our partner is not Russia. Our partners are Roscosmos," the NASA chief was quoted as saying by the site.
But Bolden also admitted that there were "very few options if Russia takes any action denying U.S. astronauts from the space station," only noting that the Russia's ability to operate the ISS would likely be equally hampered if NASA ended the partnership.

Another major topic, NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), "faced near-universal criticism from both Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee," the Planetary Society reported. The space agency floated a plan last year to capture a near-Earth asteroid with an unmanned spacecraft and drag it into lunar orbit for study, possibly also converting the space rock into a way station for missions to Mars and other destinations further out in the Solar System.
Snaring an asteroid and hauling it to the Moon could cost around $2.5 billion and the project might be a decade or more away from bearing fruit. Lawmakers reportedly criticized the ARM as lacking "a target, a timeline, and a budget," with many subcommittee members "unhappy with progress in these areas since NASA first announced the mission last year," according to the Planetary Society.

Meanwhile, Bolden's contention that the "ultimate goal in our lifetime is to see humans on Mars" was not met with the agreement from subcommittee members that the NASA chief might have hoped, according to KPCC.

Though some are hoping that NASA will lead the way on sending humans to Mars by the 2030s, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) described such an effort as a "symbolic mission" that "would be expensive and take away resources from other projects," KPCC reported.

Other topics discussed at the hearing included NASA's next-generation Space Launch System and Orion programs, the advancement of partnerships with private spaceflight firms like the United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, and the uncertain status of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) project.

Source and special thanks: PC Magazine

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