What will happen to NASA with Ted Cruz in charge?

The Tea Party, space, and the future of environmental science


The 114th Congress is "arguably the most anti-scientific group of politicians this country has seen in decades," writes Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait. Some members of Congress are very cozy with the "I’m not a scientist" line as a way to wipe their hands clean of any need for scientific knowledge — while they nonetheless determine the budget of federal scientific bodies.

the "core function of NASA is to explore space."

Texas Senator Ted Cruz is the chair of the Senate subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, which oversees the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. So far, Cruz has released a statement indicating that his goal is an ambitious program for space exploration. Says Cruz in the statement:

We must refocus our investment on the hard sciences, on getting men and women into space, on exploring low-Earth orbit and beyond, and not on political distractions that are extraneous to NASA’s mandate.

In his most recent hearings on the matter, Cruz lambasted the agency’s focus on Earth science and climate change, saying that the "core function of NASA is to explore space." He said this to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, whose take on the mission of the agency was a little more general: "Our core mission from the very beginning has been to investigate, explore space and the Earth environment, and to help us make this place a better place."

At once, Ted Cruz represents one of the most conservative electorates in the nation and the home of one of the most ambitious government programs. Cruz’s view of NASA is a sort of call back to the idealized vision created in books like The Right Stuff — a group of rough and tumble space cowboys quite literally shooting for the Moon. It’s the same refrain once sung by President George W. Bush, who wanted a return to the Moon. Both men have, at points, represented Texas, where Johnson Space Center serves as the lead for crewed spaceflight in NASA’s facilities, and both have proposed ambitious goals for the agency. Bush’s vision, the Constellation program, was cancelled in 2010.

Calls and emails to Cruz’s office seeking comment weren’t returned. Also worth noting: NASA's 2015 budget has already passed, and the agency received more money than it requested. Any real showdown won’t kick off until 2016 negotiations begin.

Though Cruz is a space booster, he's also the same man who said of climate change in that CNN interview, "Climate change, as they have defined it, can never be disproved, because whether it gets hotter or whether it gets colder, whatever happens, they’ll say, well, it’s changing, so it proves our theory." Cruz has also said that there hasn’t been any warming in the last 15 years. Never mind that the existence of climate change is the consensus of the scientific establishment, which near-unanimously agrees that it’s happening and humans are causing it. What's more, according to scientists: 10 of the hottest years in recorded weather history have taken place since 1998, and 2014 was the hottest year on record.

though cruz is a space booster, he takes a dim view of climate change.

So who’s keeping track of those temperatures?

Well, NASA, alongside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Cruz is overseeing NASA within the Subcommittee on Science and Space; like-minded Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) oversees NOAA from the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard. Neither senator is particularly friendly to the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. Both are overseeing the governing bodies tasked with gathering the data.

sea ice pair

Arctic sea ice as captured by NASA satellites, in February 2013 (left) and 1979 (right). (NASA's Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens and Jesse Allen)

NASA got into the official business of Earth sciences in 1976, when Congress vested more authority in them for "national needs," which included monitoring of the ozone layer and pollution from space. The Apollo-Soyuz mission had flown the year prior, and the next crewed mission wasn’t to take place until 1981 with the launch of the Space Shuttle.

It was at this time, 40 years ago, that the agency transitioned toward prioritizing planetary sciences. The Voyager missions were launched in that time, some of the most ambitious exploratory missions performed by the agency. The Viking probe performed astrobiology experiments on the surface of Mars. And, on the home front, the first satellites dedicated to monitoring Earth’s ecosystems went into orbit, including the Seasat-A to monitor the oceans and the Nimbus 7, which monitored ozone depletion. The business of NASA thus became less on crewed exploration, and more on mass collection of scientific data of our solar system.

Cruz released statements criticizing the agency’s work on climate change, saying in budget negotiations that the Senate "must not sacrifice funding for NASA’s core mission of space exploration to continue expanding climate change funding." But in his initial hearings on the agency, Cruz has largely remained mum on his goals, including his vociferous denial of anthropogenic climate change. As reported by Space Policy Online, a February hearing was largely devoted to less reliance on Russia for space launches and the expansion of the commercial space industry. They remarked that Cruz seemed inquisitive rather than confrontational, and climate change scarcely came up in the hearings.

space station view

A view of the Earth, snapped by US astronauts on the ISS on March 2nd. (NASA)

But Cruz's first meetings with NASA officials in a Space Subcommittee meeting showed a more combative side. Cruz and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner made clear that for them, the core mission of NASA was space exploration, not any of the agency's other scientific pursuits, like monitoring climate change from space. Of course, it will be more difficult to put people in space if sea levels rise and "Kennedy Space Center goes underwater," notes Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who is one of NASA’s staunchest defenders in Congress — and who flew as a payload specialist on a shuttle mission in 1986.

By the end of the hearing, Cruz made clear his intent to jettison some of NASA's scientific missions during funding discussions. He says he wants to see a return to the "hard sciences" — apparently excluding environmental science — and getting NASA's focus back to space.

Space is big business in Texas, giving NASA a bit of breathing room. Cruz can’t go after NASA with the ferocity of some government programs in the crosshairs of other budget slashers. The Johnson Space Center is located in Houston, and the private aerospace industry — companies like Raytheon, XCOR, Boeing and SpaceX — have operations in the state. In fact, 153,000 Texans were employed in aerospace or aviation in 2012, and it accounted for $5.6 billion in exports.

Cruz also wants NASA to rely less on international partners for space launches; this includes Russians ferrying Americans into low-Earth orbit on the International Space Station. Given frosty relations with Russia, the statement would hardly come as a surprise on either side of the aisle. And in fact, NASA has already given SpaceX and Boeing contracts to send American astronauts to the ISS starting in 2017.

As for Russia, the country has committed itself to the ISS through 2024. After that, though, it will focus on a separate space station. Of all the international collaborators on the International Space Station, Roscosmos is currently the only one capable of crewed missions. (China is launch capable, but does not participate in the ISS.)

It's not clear, though, what Cruz's focus on an independent NASA means for other international partners like the European Space Agency. NASA teamed with ESA for the Ulysses sun probe in the 1990s as well as Hubble and the succeeding James Webb Telescope. "Less reliance on international partners" is vague enough to suggest fewer partnerships with them in the future, as well.

Cruz supports the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System heavy lift rocket. But he's a little less clear on  possible destinations for Orion and the SLS. Future missions will be determined by hearing, whether "to an asteroid, the moon, Mars, or beyond," he's said.

As for planetary science, like the successors of the current Dawn, Cassini, or New Horizons probes? Cruz is surprisingly mum. He's silent, too, on Mars exploration and future space telescopes.

Cruz’s chairmanship isn’t a death knell for NASA, or a new paradigm shift toward a crewed mission to Mars in the next five years. What does seem likely are showy budget fights, with NASA’s role in climate and earth sciences at the center. One thing seems certain: Cruz will be attacking the agency’s climate science components. If Cruz has his eye on the presidency in 2016, he’s going to be making those budget negotiations as dramatic as possible.