Paul Martin, then the nominee for Inspector General for NASA, answers questions during his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in 2009.

Enlarge / Paul Martin, then the nominee for Inspector General for NASA, answers questions during his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in 2009. (credit: NASA)

On Tuesday, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin wrote a rather extraordinary letter to the US senators who determine the budget for the space agency. In effect, the independent NASA official asked Congress to kindly not meddle in decisions that concern actual rocket science.

The letter addressed which rocket NASA should use to launch its multibillion dollar mission to explore Jupiter's Moon Europa, an intriguing ice-encrusted world that likely harbors a vast ocean beneath the surface. NASA is readying a spacecraft, called the Europa Clipper, for a launch to the Jupiter system to meet a 2023 launch window.

Congress, in appropriations legislation, has for several years mandated that the space agency launch the Clipper mission on the Space Launch System rocket—the large, powerful, and very costly heavy-lift rocket that has earned the sobriquet Senate Launch System because its design and construction was mandated by senators nearly a decade ago. However, the rocket remains under development and probably will not fly for the first time until mid- or late 2021 at the earliest. And NASA has said that if it is to have any chance of landing humans on the Moon by 2024, the goal set by US Vice President Mike Pence, it must have the first three SLS rocket launches for the Artemis Moon program.

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