Battle brewing over NASA funding

A battle of interplanetary proportions is brewing on Capitol Hill.

It’s not “Star Wars,” but partisan lines are quickly being drawn in a budget battle over the future of NASA, which could have a long-term impact on the space agency’s ability to explore the deepest corners of space as well as the ground beneath our feet. 

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On one side are Republicans who accuse the Obama administration of taking its eye off the ball by funneling too much money into research about the planet Earth, rather than focusing on distant worlds and stars.

On the other, Democrats argue that the administration’s plan is critical to harness the best of NASA’s talents, protect our planet and consistent with the agency’s wide-ranging mission.

Now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress for the first time in years, the fight is spilling into the open.

“In the past six years, too much of NASA’s focus has been driven by the political agenda of politicians in Washington rather than the core mission of focusing on space exploration,” said Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE (R-Texas), who leads the Senate subcommittee on Space, after a hearing on the agency’s budget this week.

“That’s what NASA was created to do and it’s where its energy should be focused.”

Cruz pledged to flex Capitol Hill’s muscle by passing a NASA authorization bill that “continue[s] this discussion of getting back to the core priorities of NASA.”

But Democrats are likely to push back.

Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the top Democrat on Cruz’s panel, warned against “false choices” between exploring distant worlds and studying our own planet.

“Rather, we should seek a set of complementary initiatives that will pay returns to our civilization for centuries to come,” he said.

“Earth science directly relates to everything that we’re doing in exploration,” echoed Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

In its budget request for fiscal 2016, NASA asked for a total of $18.5 billion, a 3 percent increase from last year.

Of that, more than $1.9 billion is slated to go to earth science programs, which will pay for high-quality mapping and the development of a slew of satellites for monitoring the planet, among other issues.

About $4.5 billion is requested for exploration, meanwhile, including development of rockets to be launched into deep space. Another $4 billion is slated for space operations, including support of the International Space Station.

According to Cruz, that represents a 41 percent increase in earth science funding since 2009, compared to a 7 percent decrease in funding for exploration and operations.

“Are we focusing on the heavens in NASA or are we focusing on dirt in Texas?” asked Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the head of the Commerce Committee and the Senate’s No. 3 Republican, is similarly concerned that some research may be “redundant with activities being undertaken at other federal agencies and may actually reduce the availability of funds for research related to the traditional sciences, aeronautics and space exploration,” his spokesman said.

NASA has pushed back against Cruz’s number, claiming that the analysis did not include stimulus funding or account for inflation. By that account, earth science funding has actually gone down by 1 percent, the agency says.

In all, the agency has devoted $49 billion to manned spaceflight during the Obama administration and $11 billion for earth science.

“With this funding, America has maintained its world leadership in space exploration and scientific discovery,” NASA spokesman David Weaver said in a statement.

The GOP effort also might meet some resistance from the nation’s scientists who say that rebalancing could hinder critical research.

“Earth science within NASA provides a broad array of benefits and applications across the public and private sectors,” Christine W. McEntee, the head of the American Geophysical Union wrote to Cruz on Friday.

For instance, NASA projects helped respond to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, she noted, and also track algae blooms and monitor severe storms.

While other federal agencies may perform similar work, none have the technical expertise found at NASA, supporters say.

“NASA has the space capability and it’s important that that capability be used,” said George Abbey, the senior fellow in space policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Over the next few years, the Obama administration wants to spend more money to both push humans deeper into space and expand our knowledge about our own planet, with the ultimate goal of sending a manned mission to Mars by the mid-2030s.

Ironically enough, that’s a goal that Cruz shares.

But before it gets to Mars, NASA is going to need to go through Congress.