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Cruz hearing
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) uses a chart to describe what he considers disproportionate spending on Earth sciences at NASA as Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) look on. (credit: J. Foust)

The core of NASA’s mission

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Every once in a while, there’s a discussion about whether NASA is trying to do too much with its limited budget, and if so, what parts of its mission should be handed over either to other government agencies or to the private sector. In the past, that’s included handing over parts of its aeronautics and science portfolio to other agencies, whether or not those agencies want them or are equipped to handle them. Those proposals, though, have never advanced beyond the discussion stage.

“I’d like to start by asking a general question,” Cruz said to Bolden. “In your judgment, what is the core mission of NASA?”

Those discussions appear to be starting up again, thanks to one high-profile senator. It should be little surprise that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the new chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, is raising the issue, given his past criticism of what he perceived to be en overemphasis on Earth science at the space agency (see “The limits of Cruz control”, The Space Review, January 26, 2015). Cruz, though, made little mention of the issue in his first hearing last month, focusing on NASA’s space exploration plans and commercial spaceflight.

That wasn’t the case, though, in a hearing his subcommittee held on Thursday on NASA’s fiscal year 2016 budget request. “There’s one vital question this committee should examine: should NASA focus primarily inwards, or outwards beyond low Earth orbit?” Cruz said in his opening remarks. “Since the end of the last administration, we have seen a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds that have been allocated to the Earth science program, at the expense of, and in comparison to, exploration and space operations, planetary science, heliophysics, and astrophysics, which I believe are all rooted in exploration.”

After the hearing’s sole witness, NASA administrator Charles Bolden, finished his opening statement that reviewed the agency’s programs and the 2016 budget request, Cruz returned to that issue. “I’d like to start by asking a general question,” Cruz said. “In your judgment, what is the core mission of NASA?”

Bolden responded that he had had given the issue “a lot of thought” recently, and went back to the National Aeronautics and Space Act, the 1958 legislation—amended several times since then—that created the space agency. “Essentially, our core mission from the beginning has been to investigate, explore space and the Earth environment, and to help us make this place a better place,” he said, adding that aeronautics was another core mission of NASA.

“There’s no doubt there are multiple important priorities within NASA,” Cruz said, “but I would suggest that almost any American would agree that the core function of NASA is to explore space. That’s what inspires little boys and little girls across this country. It’s what sets NASA apart from any other agency.”

“You know that I am concerned that NASA, in the current environment, has lost its full focus on that mission,” Cruz added, speaking to Bolden. To emphasize this point, he put on display a chart showing the change in funding requested for a number of agency activities. According to that chart, NASA’s request for funding for Earth sciences had increased 41 percent between the fiscal year 2009 budget request—the last by the previous administration—and the new 2016 request. Funding requested for exploration programs was down by 7.6 percent, while space science programs had seen increases of no more than 10 percent.

“In my judgment, this does not represent a fair or appropriate allocation of resources,” Cruz said.

“We can’t go anywhere is the Kennedy Space Center is underwater and we don’t know it, and that’s understanding our environment,” Bolden said.

Bolden, asked to defend that allocation of funds, offered several explanations. Commercial cargo and crew transportation systems offer cost savings, he argued, that could explain the decline in exploration funding. He also shied away from accepting the figures in the chart, saying that he didn’t want to get into “chartmanship” about what, for example, might be included under exploration.

Fundamentally, though, Bolden supported the increased expenditure on Earth sciences, saying it was critical to agency and the nation. “We can’t go anywhere is the Kennedy Space Center is underwater and we don’t know it, and that’s understanding our environment,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical that we understand Earth’s environment because this is the only place that we have to live.”

Another Republican member of the subcommittee, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), also questioned NASA’s emphasis on Earth science, arguing that other agencies can study this topic but only NASA can do things like send rovers to Mars. After an exchange of questions on those topics, Bolden said, “I get your drift.”

“Drift is a good point, because that’s exactly what I want to talk about,” Gardner responded. “It seems to me that NASA, perhaps, has drifted away from its core mission, and I’m concerned about that.” Other agencies, he argued, can take up the Earth sciences work NASA currently performed.

Bolden disagreed. “To my knowledge, there is only one agency of the federal government that develops the instruments, launches the satellites, and the like that explore our planet,” he argued, noting that other agencies that operate satellites rely on NASA’s expertise. “If you Earth science out of NASA, the nation loses its dominant capability to do the types of Earth science sensors, the types of Earth science investigations that this nation does.”

Gardner was unconvinced. “The budget for Earth science… is $1.95 billion,” he said, “but we are without the basic required systems to send pioneers to Mars.”

Democrats on the subcommittee came to Bolden’s defense regarding Earth sciences spending. “It’s not is there’s been a big increase from a baseline, it’s actually coming back from a major reduction that took place during the Bush Administration,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), ranking member of the space subcommittee. He cited a 2012 report from the National Academies that claimed that those earlier cuts were having a “disastrous consequence” on Earth observation capabilities.

“If you want to solve the problem of what you’re talking about, about going to Mars and ramping it up, then what we need is more than the president’s request of half a billion dollars increase for NASA,” Nelson said.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the former chairman of the space subcommittee and current ranking member of the full committee, also weighed in. “In some quarters, it seems to be fashionable to say that Earth science is not a part of the exploration program,” he said. He then cited as an example NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, which were scheduled for launch that evening. (The MMS spacecraft, while studying the Earth’s magnetic field, were funded through NASA’s heliophysics program, not its Earth science program.)

NASA’s real problem, Nelson said later in the hearing, was a lack of funding for the agency overall. “If you want to solve the problem of what you’re talking about, about going to Mars and ramping it up, then what we need is more than the president’s request of half a billion dollars increase for NASA,” he said to Cruz.

“We can ‘pour the juice’ like we did in the Apollo program, where the nation’s space budget was more like five percent of the entire federal budget instead of the existing NASA budget being less than a percent of the total federal budget,” he added. “And you will certainly find this senator supporting you in that.”

Cruz showed no sign of wanting to “pour the juice” into the NASA budget—which, in some respects, is beyond his control, since his subcommittee does not appropriate funding. By the end of the hearing, though, he maintained his argument that NASA was not properly focused.

“You have spent a great deal of time at this hearing defending the importance of Earth sciences, defending the importance of weather observation. I think everyone would agree with that,” Cruz told Bolden. He later brought up the issue of NASA supporting Texas soil conservation efforts, a topic that came up as an example earlier in the hearing that he suggested belonged to other agencies.

“NASA’s core competency is not Texas soil conservation,” he said. “That ain’t what makes NASA special. I have to say that if NASA ever becomes a place to study Texas soil, you’re going to lose a whole lot of bright new engineers who want to go explore the galaxy.”

Cruz suggested that he would bring up the issue this year, when his subcommittee works on a NASA authorization bill. “It’s my hope that this committee will work in a bipartisan manner to help refocus those priorities where they should be: back to the hard sciences, back to space, to focus on what makes NASA special,” he said. “In that process, we will continue this discussion of getting back to the core priorities of NASA.”

Earth scientists, and others at NASA, might disagree that Earth science is not a “hard science” and that studies of the Earth, by NASA alone or in partnership with other agencies, are a part of NASA’s mission. And it seems unlikely Congress in general would approve and radical changes in NASA’s Earth sciences programs: Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, would likely stop any effort to do so, given that Goddard Space Flight Center in her state does some Earth sciences work.

However, Mikulski will be retiring after the 2016 elections, and Cruz has ambitions for higher office; even if those fail, he’ll likely still be in the Senate in 2017. This is probably not the last round of the debate about what constitutes NASA’s core mission.