There was a great deal of hue and cry earlier this year when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) took over the newly renamed Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness. [Science-Denying Troglodyte Ted Cruz to Chair Senate Science Subcommittee]
Critics view the far right Tea Party favorite as pretty much of an idiot when it comes to science. [8 Dumb Quotes About Science From New NASA Overseer Ted Cruz] They worry about his past efforts to cut NASA’s budget, and what they view as his dishonest skepticism about the realities of global warming. [Ted Cruz to Oversee NASA: What Does His Record Tell Us?]
It didn’t take long for critics’ worst fears to be born out. Last Thursday, Cruz decided to engage NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a debate over the space agency’s core mission. The consensus is that Cruz got the worst of the exchange, in the process demonstrating a lack of knowledge about what NASA’s been doing for the past 57 years.
Cruz’s basic contention was that the Obama Administration has been over spending on Earth science research while shorting changing human space exploration and everything else in the budget. The senator brought out a chart showing that while Earth Sciences budget has received a 41 percent boost since George W. Bush departed office in 2009, the Space Operations and Exploration budgets — which fund the International Space Station, commercial crew, Orion and the Space Launch System — have dropped a combined 7.6 percent.
“Almost any American would agree that the core function of NASA is to explore space,” Cruz declared. “That’s what inspires little boys and little girls across this country.”
Bolden responded that the study of Earth has been one of NASA’s core functions since it was created in 1958. He also pointed out the importance of the research to space agency and planet in general.
“We can’t go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center goes underwater and we don’t know it — and that’s understanding our environment,” Bolden said. “It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth’s environment because this is the only place that we have to live.”
The NASA administrator said there was a large cost saving when the space agency retired its expensive space shuttle program in 2011. He also explained that NASA is trying to reduce the costs of sending astronauts to the International Space Station.
Cruz’s chart was misleading and gave a distorted view of NASA’s spending and the Obama Administration’s budget priorities. To see how one only needs to look at NASA’s $18.53 billion FY 2016 budget proposal.
The Science budget would be funded at $5.29 billion. Of that amount, $1.95 billion would be spent on Earth Science, which is about 37.25 percent of the total. The other 62.75 percent of the Science budget would be split between Planetary Science, Astrophysics, Heliophysics and the James Webb Space Telescope.
In other words, most of NASA’s Science budget is about exploring space and its environment, albeit not with the astronauts that Cruz finds so inspirational.
So, what about the Exploration and Space Operations budgets that Cruz said had been reduced? How central are these budgets to NASA’s overall spending?
Very central. The Administration is requesting $4.5 billion for the Exploration budget, which funds the commercial crew and SLS/Orion programs. The Space Operations budget, which is used to fund space station operations and related programs, would receive $4 billion.
In other words, the Administration is proposing to spend $8.5 billion on human spaceflight program out of a total budget proposal of $18.53 billion. This is compared with $1.95 billion to be spent on Earth science.
The Obama Administration also is requesting $724.8 million for the Space Technology budget. That funding supports a range of new technologies, with a central thrust of allowing NASA to better explore space with both robots and astronauts.
The other important thing to note is the Bush Administration shared a similar skepticism about global warming and the value of environmental research. It’s no surprise that NASA’s underfunded Earth Science budget would rise during the Obama Administration, which takes both of these matters seriously.
Bolden is responsibly addressing urgent environmental concerns within the limited budget he has been given by Congress in accordance with one of his agency’s core missions. Cruz, on the other hand, is using distorted data to falsely accuse the Obama Administration of short changing human spaceflight.
Cruz managed to prove his critics right while chairing only his second subcommittee meeting. The next two years will be very interesting.