Human spaceflight versus Earth sciences?

A letter signed by several members of Congress is the latest evidence that a new battle line is forming over NASA funding: human spaceflight versus Earth sciences. In a letter to House Appropriations committee chairman Rep. Hal Rogers and CJS subcommittee chairman Frank Wolf, six Republican members of Congress asked the appropriators to prioritize NASA funding on what they consider to be the agency’s primary mission, human spaceflight. To do that, they argue that funding for NASA’s climate change research be redirected to human spaceflight accounts. “With your help, we can reorient NASA’s mission back toward human spaceflight by reducing funding for climate change research and reallocating those funds to NASA’s human spaceflight accounts, all while moving overall discretionary spending towards FY2008 levels,” the letter’s authors–Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL), Pete Olson (R-TX), Rob Bishop (R-UT), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Sandy Adams (R-FL), and Mo Brooks (R-AL)–argue.

There are a number of issues with the letter. They claim that NASA spent “over a billion dollars” on “studying global warming/climate change” in FY2010. The agency got about $1.4 billion for all Earth sciences research in FY10, according to agency budget documents. There’s no breakout for how much of that went specifically to climate change research, though. The letter also claims that the “lion share” of NASA’s share of stimulus funding went to climate change studies. In fact, only about a third of the agency’s stimulus funding, $325 million, went to Earth sciences programs, to accelerate development of Earth science spacecraft. Human spaceflight got even more: $400 million, including $50 million for the CCDev program. And their claim that NASA’s core mission is human spaceflight is not supported by other documents, ranging from the National Aeronautics and Space Act from 1958 to the latest NASA authorization act, which declared that NASA “is and should remain a multi-mission agency with a balanced and robust set of core missions in science, aeronautics, and human space flight and exploration” and that “NASA plays a critical role through its ability to provide data on solar output, sea level rise, atmospheric and ocean temperature, ozone depletion, air pollution, and observation of human and environment relationships”.

A bigger issue, though, is that this letter may be indicative of a bigger battle some in Congress want to wage between human spaceflight and Earth science. Some members have openly expressed their skepticism about the validity of climate change research, questioning either the existence of global warming or the role of human activities in causing climate change. The letter to appropriators makes no judgment on the quality of validity of such research, only NASA’s role in supporting it, but some might see that unspoken argument there. For example, one of the letter’s signers, Rep. Brooks, said last week in regards to NASA funding that there would be “hearings soon on global warming” by the House science committee without going into more details. An attack on Earth sciences funding to support human spaceflight could create or reinvigorate opponents of human spaceflight programs, reminiscent of previous debates between human spaceflight and robotic space exploration advocates–a battle that the agency presumably would want to avoid.


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