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The removal of Europa Clipper SLS requirement by Congress

Congress is being asked by the White House to pull out language from the appropriations bill so as to allow NASA to launch the Europa Clipper mission provided the existing disputes come to an end. On 30th November, Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Russell Vought, wrote a letter to the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Richard Shelby. The letter addressed issues concerning the 2021 spending bills that Richard’s committee had released on 10th November. The bills were to serve as the driving force for negotiations with the Senate, which had passed the bills in its version in the summer. 

Some of the House bills were justice, commerce, and science spending bill. The science spending bill gives NASA a package of $23.5 billion to be used in 2021. The language bill was in last year’s bill and not in the 2021 version. In that letter, Vought told Shelby the administration is not happy with the bill that NASA would use the Space Launch System vehicle to launch the Europa Clipper mission. 

In the past few years, NASA had suggested using a commercial vehicle to launch the Europa Clipper instead of the Space Launch System (SLS). The agency said that using a commercial vehicle is likely to save $1.5 billion, and it would be appropriate to use the SLS rocket for its Artemis Lunar exploration program. 

In the July spending bill, NASA got relief from the Senate. However, Senate appropriators did not give explanations as to why the SLS language remained in the bill. For a long time and from the technical point of view, SLS is the most recommended for the Europa Clipper mission. This is because it provides a direct trajectory, allowing the aircraft to arrive at Jupiter in less than three-year after the launch. Other vehicles primarily depend on gravity, and the travel time would be much longer, taking more than three years. 

In August, NASA officials said that addressing issues concerning the potential hardware compatibility between the SLS and the Europa Clipper vehicle. However, the agency did not say the problems and said that adjusting the special hardware would solve this issue. 

Negotiations about the 2021 spending bills are underway between the Senate and the House. Many hope that the long-debated bill will come to an end regardless of the language in the final bill. Project officials said that postponing this essential decision is likely to add to the mission’s costs.

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