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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Follow-Up: NASA’s Cruz Control

By Phil Plait

On Tuesday, I wrote about the GOP taking over the Senate and putting a cohort of anti-reality science deniers in charge of oversight of key scientific agencies: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on the committee that oversees NASA, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) overseeing the Environmental Protection Agency.

All three have been vocal about denying that humans have any link to climate change—especially Inhofe, who has said global warming is a hoax.

I’m most concerned about the EPA, since Inhofe appears hellbent on hobbling the agency (which he once called “a Gestapo bureaucracy”; yes, seriously). But I’m also concerned about Cruz overseeing NASA, since about 10 percent of its budget is for Earth science, including monitoring global warming and climate change.

A lot of media covered this, some of it more histrionic than others. Yesterday, a couple of new articles went up, taking a different tack. Space policy expert Marcia Smith, for example, wrote a thoughtful piece for Space Policy Online questioning Cruz’s ability to “derail” NASA. She points out that his ability to change NASA policy is limited. She says,

Cruz … has authority over policy and theoretically could write a NASA authorization bill that restricts what climate science research NASA could do or even abolishes NASA’s entire earth science program. Such a bill, however, would have to get through the full committee, the Senate, the House and be signed into law by the President before becoming law. While one should “never say never,” the chances of that happening are extremely small.

I hope she’s right (and she is very informed on these matters), but I’m not completely convinced. What little legislation the Republicans in Congress haven’t obstructed over the past few years has hardly been a compromise in the dictionary sense; the Democrats and White House have caved on quite a bit. Since the NASA budget is part of the overall federal budget, I’m not 100 percent sure they won’t try to excise what they don’t like.

As Smith points out, Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) are big supporters of NASA, and they have the most power over the budget (unfortunately, in my opinion, when it comes to Shelby). But Shelby is “equivocal” on climate change and may side with Cruz if it comes to cutting back on NASA’s Earth science work. I hope we don’t have to find out.

Over at the Houston Chronicle, space and science writer Eric Berger concurs with Smith’s article; Cruz may not have much power to wield over NASA policy. He also notes that Cruz’s state includes the Johnson Space Center, but apparently the senator hasn’t shown much interest in it. Berger speculates that Cruz (along with Shelby) may be in favor of the NASA Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft; that doesn’t make me entirely happy, but it may help protect NASA.

And what does Cruz himself have to say? His office issued a statement, and there’s a lot of pro–space exploration sentiment in there, as well as a pledge to cut waste. I hope that’s the case … if it really is waste. I’ve said it before: NASA could use better administrating, and less waste. But a lot of that waste is thrust upon it by Congress and the White House, and it’s maddening to hear a senator talk about cutting it when his own chamber is responsible for so much of it.

In Cruz’s statement there was no direct mention of climate studies, but I wonder. He does say:”

We must refocus our investment on the hard sciences, on getting men and women into space, on exploring low-Earth orbit and beyond, and not on political distractions that are extraneous to NASA’s mandate. 

I have to say, in the minds of Cruz and other global warming deniers, climate science might very well fit in that latter box. So I worry.

Look. Perhaps we who understand the reality of climate change are seeing too much in Cruz’s appointment. I certainly hope so. But when those of us who agree with the science have seen it attacked, mercilessly and baselessly for so many years, and have seen action postponed again and again, and have watched as people like Cruz, Inhofe, and Rubio pooh-pooh what’s literally going on all around them, perhaps we’ve earned our right to be concerned.

Tip o’ the nose cone to Dan Vergano, Ed Price, and Jeffrey Snively.

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