Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Can We Trust Ted Cruz With NASA?

I normally keep politics out of this blog, but in this case it's relevant to science and exploration.

Ted Cruz has been named chair of the senate committee that overseas NASA (amongst other things).

The immediate reaction is that this is a bad thing. Actually, Cruz's record on NASA itself is mixed. He's attempted to cut the space agency's already rather thin budget, but he's also said he supports it. And he can only go so far against it given the Johnson Space Center is in his state - and Texas voters would probably not appreciate job cuts there.

Cruz's record, though, indicates that the alarmist kneejerk reaction that he will "defund" or "destroy" NASA might be premature. On the one hand, he's a Tea Party darling in very much in favor of cutting, well, anything he can get away with cutting.

On the other, he is in favor of manned space exploration and is likely to put a lot of weight behind Orion. However, he may well be against the use of commercial companies for access to the ISS (Something I'm very much in favor of), if for no other reason than because Obama likes it.

The other big issue with Cruz is that he's the climate change denier of climate change deniers. Which means he's likely to try and cut funding to NASA's earth science programs.

Here's the thing. Even if you're skeptical about climate change, those programs are useful. EPIC will launch this month and is programmed to take a panoramic photo of the entire planet. This will be a first. EPIC will be part of the Deep Space Climate Observatory, which will park at the L1 to monitor our planet. Cruz is unlikely to be able to stop this launch, but he might cut funding to the scientists actually getting the data from it. And guess what's also going up with it - a satellite to monitor the solar wind more accurately.

If Cruz messes with earth science programs at NASA, he'll mess with climate monitoring, meteorology, solar wind monitoring (useful for predicting flares) and possibly even programs designed to protect us from asteroids.

Therefore, I suppose, I'd like to make this a bit of an open letter to him - don't mess with NASA's earth science programs. Even if, Mr. Cruz, you don't believe climate change is happening, you should believe solar flares are a risk to our civilization. You should believe farmers in Texas need the most accurate meteorology we can get. You should believe that asteroid impacts are a risk.

I'm all for manned exploration, but I believe partnering with commercial ventures is the most efficient use of NASA's money in this regard. NASA should be about doing science that has no immediate commercial payoff, now and in the future. While I realize funding will not and should not be infinite, that only means we need to use it carefully...and without putting partisan politics in the way.