House Space Subcommitee’s Surreal NASA Budget Hearing

Lamar Smith
Lamar Smith

I woke up early this morning with a low-grade headache. Checking Twitter, I discovered I’d slept through the beginning of a House Subcommittee on Space’s hearing on NASA’s budget with Administrator Charlie Bolden.

My headache immediately worsened as I found the hearing webcast on my cell phone. A whole range of largely unprintable words and phrases came immediately to mind, but there was one that kept coming back: clown car. The House Science Committee really needs a bigger clown car.

It’s not the committee members’ criticism of the Boulder (sorry, Asterorid) Redirect Mission that I had a problem with. Or their demands that NASA actually present a road map to help guide the nation on the road to Mars. I even understood why they felt the Obama Administration’s request for Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion was low. And the Europa mission probably needs more money. All those things are the subject of legitimate debate.

What really got my head pounding was a line of questioning and statements from the Republican majority  best summed up by a paragraph in House Science Committee Chairman’s Lamar Smith’s opening statement.

“The Administration continues to starve NASA’s exploration programs to fund a partisan environmental agenda. NASA simply deserves better.”

It was yet another spectacularly false claim made in an institution already well know for its overabundance of bullshit.

Let’s go through this. NASA wants to spend $8 billion on human spaceflight programs in FY 2016. The Earth Science budget Smith is complaining about would be just under $2 billion. Human spaceflight is hardly starving. Nor is our robotic program.

The Earth Science budget — which Smith and others conflate with global change research — has risen significantly over the past six years. The main reason is that it was underfunded for the eight previous years by the Bush Administration, which was run by a couple of Texas oilmen. Republican point to a large percentage rise in the budget (Ted Cruz says 41 percent) while ignoring the relatively small base from which the increase came.

The Obama Administration has taken Earth Science seriously. It has responded properly to a decadal survey that identified both chronic underfunding and a number of pressing scientific needs. This is an example of the government doing its job responsibly, yet NASA gets nothing but grief about it from its Republican overseers on Capitol Hill.

Smith said in his statement that Earth Sciences was crowding out other priorities within NASA’s Science budget. On this, he has a point. Or at least half a point. NASA’s budget is limited, and there need to be tradeoffs made. But, this isn’t entirely the Administration’s fault; Obama has consistently wanted to spend much more on NASA than Congress.

Smith conveniently ignores the biggest problem within the Science budget:  the massively over budget and perpetually behind schedule James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). If Congress was really concerned about out of control science programs crowding out planetary exploration, it would have canceled Battlescope Galactica years ago. It didn’t, so everyone has to live with the consequences until JWST is launched in 2018. (Providing it doesn’t slip further.)

There was discussion during the hearing that NASA really shouldn’t be in the business of studying the Earth. Once Congressman helpfully pointed out the Bolden that the first “A” in NASA stand for “aeronautics” and the “S” stands for space. There’s no “E” in the name for “environment” or “CC” for climate change.

Bolden patiently pointed out — and not for the first time — that the study of the Earth has been part of NASA’s charter since it was founded in 1958. This fact is clear to anyone with a basic understanding of the space agency’s budget and history, but seemed strangely lost on certain committee members.

“There are 13 other agencies involved in climate change research, but only one that is responsible for space exploration,” Smith said in his statement, ignoring the fact many of the agencies get their data from NASA.

Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks proposed that NASA’s Earth Science work should be transferred to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA would be given $2 billion to do environmental research, while NASA would be able to shift $2 billion toward other priorities.

This is clearly non-sense. Brooks and his brethren would not fully fund EPA to conduct climate change research. They don’t believe human-created global warming exists. If Republicans had their way, they would transfer all research into it to EPA and then slowly starve the program’s budget.

What Brooks wants is more money for his constituents in northern Alabama who work on SLS and Orion.  Pure and simple. Without NASA- and defense-related jobs, the economies of Huntsville and Decatur would collapse. And Brooks would probably lose his job. It’s that simple.

And how exactly would that work even assuming EPA received full funding? EPA would take its $2 billion dollars and pay NASA to secure the satellites and other systems needed to collect Earth science data. This seems unnecessarily complicated. Why not just give NASA the extra $2 billion Brooks thinks it needs to do space exploration properly?

An alternative would be wrench Earth science from inside NASA, where it is integrated within a larger Science program, and shift the whole kit and caboodle over to EPA. This is the type of thing that looks really good on paper but often turns into a bureaucratic nightmare when you try to implement it. (See: Homeland Security, Department of)

The whole thing doesn’t make any sense. There’s no evidence that Earth Science is really dragging down the rest of NASA. Or that the space agency can’t study the home planet and run human spaceflight operations simultaneously. It’s been doing that for more than 50 years. Whatever problems the human spaceflight and science programs have, they can’t be blamed on the Earth Science program. At least not entirely.

I think I learned my lesson from this morning. The next time Congress has an early morning hearing on NASA’s budget, I’m going to sleep in.