Perhaps the biggest budget battle this spring in NASA policy concerned earth science, and after slumbering this summer, that fight could soon return to prominence thanks to the new Congressional budget deal.
Whereas President Obama sought to increase NASA’s budget for earth science in this fiscal year, Republicans in Congress sought to slash it by hundreds of millions of dollars. From a historical perspective, the staunch Republican opposition to studying climate and weather changes on Earth is surprising. Both Presidents Reagan and the first George Bush supported robust plans to study Earth from space, and the fleet of satellites in orbit today are one of the main space legacies of their terms in office.
NASA budget fights
On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives passed a budget deal that will allow for modest increases to federal spending, and the Senate seems likely to pass this agreement next week. According to an analysis by the Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier, the agreements reached this week may give policymakers as much as an additional $800 million for NASA.
Earlier this year, President Obama sought $18.5 billion for NASA in his FY 2016 budget request, and the US House proposed a budget with a similar top-level amount. The Senate budget for NASA totaled $18.3 billion. The big difference was in allocation; generally, the president asked for substantially more funding for earth science and for commercial crews to ensure that Boeing or SpaceX would be ready to fly astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of 2017. Congress cut funding for both of those ventures. For example, while the president sought $1.95 billion for earth science, both the House and Senate shaved about $500 million off that number.Since the spring, Congress has come under considerable pressure from NASA and the spaceflight community to fully fund commercial crew. For the last five years, Congress has underfunded the commercial crew program, which is paying Boeing and SpaceX to develop space taxis, by more than $1 billion. Because of this, the onset of those flights has been delayed from 2015 to 2017, and NASA has had to continue to pay Russia about $80 million per seat for roundtrip flights for US astronauts to and from the station.
So every dollar Congress cuts in spending to commercial crew and American companies effectively is a dollar spent in Russia. And given the optics of not funding commercial crew, it seems likely that with the additional money from the budget deal, Congress should come close to the president’s request of $1.25 billion for commercial crew, if not match it.
That leaves earth science as the main battleground ahead, and neither the Senate nor House science committees seem likely to give ground. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who chairs the Senate’s subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, has repeatedly said that NASA needs to focus on its “core mission” of exploration rather than earth science. In the midst of the Republican presidential primary, this idea plays well to the voters Cruz is trying to woo, many of whom are skeptical of government efforts to study climate change.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the House Science Committee, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, is in themidst of a battle with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over temperature data. He has suggested that NOAA is manipulating its results to further an external agenda and has demanded to see e-mails of the agency’s scientists to prove his claims. Like Cruz, he is dubious of NASA's efforts to study the Earth’s climate and favors spending more money on exploration.
As the political rhetoric heats up, it may prove insightful to consider that the foundations of the agency’s earth science research programs were established during the Reagan and Bush administrations.
“Mission to Planet Earth”
In 1986, some of the country’s leading scientists urged NASA to do more to study planet Earth in a 50-page report titled "Earth System Science Overview: A Program for Global Change."
"The people of Earth are no longer simple spectators to the drama of Earth evolution but have become active participants on a worldwide scale, contributing to processes of global change that will significantly alter our habitat within a few generations,” the report stated. The report called for a network of satellites to make worldwide observations of this change.
A year later, physicist Sally Ride, the first US woman to fly in space, led a study on the future of NASA after the space shuttle Challenger accident. Among the strategies to maintain US leadership in space, the Ride report cited a "Mission to Planet Earth" as a top priority. "The goal of this initiative is to obtain a comprehensive scientific understanding of the entire Earth System, by describing how its various components function, how they interact, and how they may be expected to evolve on all time scales," the Ride report found.