Republican senator Ted Cruz and NASA administrator Charles Bolden don’t really see eye to eye on what NASA’s core mission is.
Cruz was appointed chairman of the Senate Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee this year, and many scientists raised an eyebrow when Cruz took the helm of the committee that oversees NASA.
Cruz is a notorious climate change denier, and his leadership in the committee seems very at odds with NASA’s dozens of climate change focused programs and missions.
And ever since his appointment to committee chair, Cruz has pushed for NASA to focus more on space and less on Earth. By not concentrating research and funding on space exploration, Cruz argues that the government is neglecting NASA’s core mission.
Bolden, who is in charge of allocating NASA’s annual $US18 billion budget, has a different opinion.
This is Bolden’s opinion on what NASA’s core mission is after reading the original National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that created NASA:
“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,” Bolden said Thursday during a hearing for NASA’s 2016 budget request.
Cruz apparently has a problem with the “Earth environment” part. According to Cruz, “Almost any American would agree that the core function of NASA is to explore space.”
Cruz thinks NASA is losing sight of that core mission, and he brought the chart below to the senate meeting to prove it.
Since 2009, NASA’s budget has seen a 41% increase in funding toward Earth science, while space exploration and operations has seen a 7.6% decrease.
“In my judgment, this does not represent a fair or appropriate allocation of resources, that it is shifting resources away from the core functions of NASA to other functions,” Cruz said during the hearing.
These “other functions” include satellite programs that measure things like Earth’s ozone layer, air quality and sea ice thickness. These missions are crucial to our understanding of how climate change is affecting the Earth and what we need to be doing to prepare for it. As a known climate change denier, it seems like Cruz is just trying to yank funding away from essential climate change research.
“It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth’s environment because this is the only place that we have to live,” Bolden said. “We’ve got to take care of it, and the only way we can take care of it is that we know what’s happening, and the only way we know what’s happening is to use instruments that we develop at NASA — and we do it better than anybody else.”
Cruz’s argument is really just a thinly veiled attempt to discourage climate change research.
Further, Bolden said that the decrease in space exploration funding was somewhat intentional as the agency has tried to decrease the cost of space missions as it’s pushed farther into space. Part of that is outsourcing space shuttle maintenance. It used to cost NASA about $US2 billion a year to maintain its space shuttle whether it was flown or not. Now, two $US6 billion contracts with private companies Boeing and SpaceX will get NASA around 16 flights in just three or four years.
“So I think the decrease is actually a little bit of what we’re trying to do to get the cost of flying humans into space down,” Bolden said. “That’s what’s driving the market, is reducing launch costs.”
It’s a good thing that Earth science funding has increased, according to Bolden.
“I’m proud to say that it has enabled us to understand our planet far better than we ever did before,” Bolden said. “We can’t go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center goes underwater and we don’t know it — and that’s understanding our environment.”
“We don’t give you opinions, we give you data,” Bolden said.
Deep space missions cost way more than Earth-based and Earth-watching missions. NASA will need more funding to complete projects like the huge SLS rocket to take us to an asteroid and later Mars, and the Orion space capsule designed to eventually take humans to Mars.
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