Bolden, Cruz Spar Over NASA Priorities, Especially Earth Science

Bolden, Cruz Spar Over NASA Priorities, Especially Earth Science

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden sparred over NASA’s priorities today (March 12) at a hearing on the President’s FY2016 budget request for the agency.   Cruz, a well-known climate change skeptic, has said several times that he wants to focus NASA on its “core priority” — space exploration – which does not include earth science research in his view.  Bolden stressed that NASA is a multi-mission agency and strongly defended its earth science role.  He also used the opportunity to urge the committee to confirm Dava Newman, who was sitting the audience, as NASA Deputy Administrator.

The fundamental issue was whether NASA, under the Obama Administration, is spending too much on earth science and not enough on “exploration” — a term that was used loosely, but clearly encompassed the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.

Cruz and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), the two Republicans who attended the hearing before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, couched their objections to how much NASA spends on earth science not in terms of the climate change debate, but as priority setting in a budget constrained environment.  Their basic argument, which has been made by others in the past, is that NASA has a unique role in space exploration while many agencies are involved in studying the earth.  NASA therefore should focus its resources on what it does uniquely and let the other agencies take responsibility for earth science research including space-based observations.

Cruz stated the question as “Should NASA focus primarily inwards or outwards beyond lower-Earth-orbit [sic],”  inward meaning looking down at Earth.  The Obama Administration has allocated “a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds” for earth science “at the expense of and compared to Exploration and Space Operations, Planetary Science, Heliophysics and Astrophysics which I believe are all rooted in exploration and should be central to the core mission of NASA.”  He later said “It’s not that earth sciences are not valuable, but in the last 6 years, there has been a disproportionate increase.”

He displayed a chart showing the percentage change in funding for different parts of NASA’s portfolio between what was appropriated for 2009, when President Obama took office, and the President’s FY2016 request.  It shows that funding for earth science increased by 41 percent while funding for “exploration & space operations” decreased by 7.6 percent.

Source:  Office of Sen. Ted Cruz.  Percentages calculated using the change between enacted
public law for 2009 and the President’s Budget Request for 2016.

Bolden and the two Democratic Senators at the hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) all questioned the data in the chart.   For example, funding for NASA facilities, such as Kennedy Space Center, are not included in the “exploration” and “space operations” budget accounts, but clearly are necessary for executing those programs so should count towards the total.   Bolden also pointed out that NASA is, in fact, trying to reduce the costs of human spaceflight and terminating the space shuttle program, which required $2 billion a year “whether it flew or not,” was one step they took.   As for the increase for earth science, Peters pointed out that earth science funding is recovering from deep cuts during the Bush Administration.  He cited a 2012 National Research Council study that called the Bush-era cuts “disastrous” and said the Obama Administration increases are an attempt to rectify that situation.

Bolden vigorously defended the earth science program and listed missions launched in the past 12 months including the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite.   He entered into an extended discussion of the utility of SMAP for measuring soil moisture in Texas, essential for water resource management.   That prompted a spirited exchange over why NASA is studying soil moisture in Texas when other agencies do that already.  “Now I’m a Texan.  I love our Texas soil, but there are a lot of people studying Texas soil, you’ve got a whole Department of Agriculture that spends a lot of time and energy studying the soil in Texas,” Cruz said.   Gardner quipped “are we focusing on the heavens in NASA or are we focusing on dirt in Texas?”   

Bolden later clarified that “we do not do Texas soil conservation.  We provide instruments that provide data to the plethora of people who do Texas soil conservation.  … We teach people how to use the instruments that we create, we teach them how to use the data.”

He also remarked that if Congress were to cut NASA earth science funding “you would just have to move the programs elsewhere” because only NASA launches earth science instruments into space.

When asked by Cruz to define NASA’s core mission, Bolden said that the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, in short, directs the agency “to investigate, explore space and the earth environment and help us make this place a better place…. And aeronautics is an essential part of what NASA does.  It is the big A in NASA.”

Considering Cruz’s strong views on climate change, the hearing actually was fairly friendly and he did acknowledge that earth sciences are valuable.   In fact, the entire hearing, which lasted only about an hour, was non-confrontational.  The issue of earth science funding certainly was debated on a partisan basis, but it was cordial for the most part.

The vast majority of the hearing dealt with the earth science versus exploration debate, but a few other issues did arise, including Dava Newman’s nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator.   President Obama originally sent her nomination to the Senate in October 2014 and resubmitted it to the new Congress in January.  The post has been vacant since September 2013.   Nelson noted that Newman was sitting in the front row of the audience, and during a discussion of how to keep America competitive in aeronautics and inspire young people, Bolden said that if the committee supports her nomination, they will have someone who can testify with authority about what interests the next generation.  Newman is a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT.

Bolden also again urged Congress to fully fund the request for commercial crew so NASA can end its reliance on Russia.

A webcast of the hearing is on the committee’s website and a press release, video clips and the chart he used are on Cruz’s website.

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