Picture this scenario: A politician is appointed to run NASA who thinks its budget is too high and then half its money and a third of its workforce is on its way to evaporating. Public support for a mission to Mars is nonexistent.
It must be in late 2015, after anti-science Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has control of NASA, if you read science media (and then whatever Huffington Post and Slate are).
The Golden Age of Space Exploration That Wasn't
But it was actually 1973. In 1973, the only thing that had less support than NASA among the public was foreign aid. You know, giving our taxpayer money to other countries. The welfare program had more public support than NASA a year after the last time we went to the Moon.(1)
Yet today, lots of young science advocates regard the 1960s and '70s as some sort of Golden Age of space exploration. It was nothing of the kind - going to the Moon was a mission, plain and simple. Space exploration ended because the only rationale NASA could come up with to keep doing it was that we should keep doing it. Even in 1969, the year we landed on the Moon, support for a mission to Mars could not be found among the general public. And then in 1970 public opinion polls again showed the overwhelming majority was against it. By 1975 NASA's budget was half what it had been in 1965. Some Golden Age.
In January of 2015, a new mythology is being created - that Ted Cruz overseeing NASA in the Senate is going to mean the end of space science. Republicans now have control of the Senate and a change in control meant a change in the chair of the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness. Politics is a game of seniority and Cruz had been the senior Republican on the subcommittee. That means he gets to take over now.
Does Ted Cruz Hate NASA?
The big knock on Senator Cruz is that he is a climate change denier. Though it is unclear what that even means, what does it have to do with NASA? Unfortunately quite a bit, because NASA has become involved in things outside its core mission in order to keep money coming in, like climate change advocacy. I am not knocking the value of climate science or for government programs expanding when they can manage to do so under the system(2), but someone in science media needs to be a trusted guide for the public on a complex issue and not just simply demonizing Republicans. That Dr. James Hansen, recently retired from NASA, is the most famous global warming expert in the world, and became so while earning millions of dollars in private speaking fees while a NASA employee(3), is part of the perceptual problem NASA has had.
I love cute robots on Mars and pretty pictures from Hubble but keep in mind that politicians and their staffers see beyond that. They know we could have cute robots and pretty pictures while spending a whole lot less money - and we wouldn't lose a single NASA employee. Though advocates claim we will "lose leadership" in some area or another if we don't spend more money than some other country, that argument does not work with politicians, who see how badly money can be misused - when it is the pet projects of their political opponents, anyway.
I don't care what Ted Cruz thinks about global warming, pollution is bad whether he thinks so or not, and Senator and now President Obama said he thought vaccines might be causing autism, but did anyone in science not vote for him in 2008 because of that? If you about care climate science, don't worry about NASA, worry about the new chair of the environment committee, Senator Jim Inhofe, who denies climate science outright.
If you do care about space science, Cruz is a good choice. Just like Cruz's opinion on climate change, that science media happens not to like Republicans is irrelevant to how well someone will do at NASA. He's likely to be better for space science than the people we have had under Democrats, including the space advocate (and space-farer) Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who insisted that extending the life of the glorified space-going UPS trucks known as the Shuttle Program was somehow necessary for science - a porkbarrel agenda that would have starved out actual space science programs - and did nothing at all about President Obama canceling Constellation in his home state. Nelson has to be careful criticizing the President 'or the Republicans win' but Cruz is not handcuffed by common party registration. If he has presidential ambitions, helping NASA will help him in Florida and some common sense about funding will be welcome to the public and a lot of NASA employees and scientists who can't criticize the President. As I have discussed about the James Webb Space Telescope and its eternal cost overruns, every time a high-profile NASA project hemorrhages money, it's the less-publicized but more scientifically valuable projects that bleed.
NASA needs someone who is not going to sign off on projects hoping they will become too big to fail. It's better for the public and it's better for science, because all those experiments that only need a few million dollars can then get it, rather than being told to wait for next year because an old program no one is excited about is delayed and over budget once again.
The First Senator To Oversee NASA Didn't Care About Science At All
Some in science media worry that Senator Cruz is going to make NASA his personal belief system and that change may become permanent, like what happened in 1992 when Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) created the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the $100 million government supplement and alternative medicine boondoggle that can never die. Well, it is a lot harder to pull that off today. A personal belief system was, however, what got NASA created - not science. Democratic Senator Lyndon Johnson, like Cruz a man from Texas, was the first politician to oversee NASA, and he was not advancing science or some dreamy myth of space exploration, he hated communists and wanted to create a platform in space to drop nuclear bombs on Russia if needed, because he was convinced they were planning it for us.
NASA as a political tool is the default, not the exception - in the late 1950s, bureaucrats at the National Science Foundation, the Air Force, the Atomic Energy Commission and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) were all jockeying for that money from the moment Johnson began hearings on creating a space program. It remains a government program and science is a small part of its work but it is at heart an engineering arm of politics. Anyone who tries to tell you that having political control of funding does not result in political decision-making in getting funded is selling you something. That counts for science and NASA both.
In 2011, The Obama Administration Was "creating a dysfunctional and hostile work environment for NASA" According To NASA
We may worry that a Republican will try to advance their own agenda but it isn't like Democrats haven't been manipulating NASA for their own ends - it just gets less attention in science media whereas whining about "the sequester" happens even now. An internal report from NASA in 2011 worried about “Obama Administration political appointees ‘focus on Democratic political goals, not national goals,’ creating a dysfunctional and hostile work environment for NASA’s career civil servants.”
Concerns about Democrats ruining science among science media writers after that came out? None at all.
Prior to that, in 2009, President Obama gutted NASA's space exploration efforts, canceling the Constellation Program(4). He said it was too far over budget and behind schedule and he wanted to replace it with something better - which seems to have mostly meant something that did not have the name of George W. Bush attached to it. Six years later we have had nothing but some rocket testing for his replacement program to Constellation and that was the engine created during the Bush program that Obama said was no good.
In 1993 when President Clinton took office with a Democratic Congress, NASA's budget was $14.3 billion. By 1996, Clinton was giving them 13.8 billion and by 1999 that had dropped to $13.5 billion, even without inflation. After President Bush took office NASA was liked once again and by the end of his second term the budget was up to $17.6 billion - a 30% increase over the Clinton years. That is clearly not the party that hates NASA.
And Cruz is also not going to try and hurt NASA because has a whole lot of NASA employees and contractors at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and they voted for him. Why would they vote for a guy who hates them? Well, he doesn't hate them. Saying some parts of a budget should be cut to control waste is not being anti-science or anti-NASA, it is being smart. As I have argued when scientists circle the wagons around criticism of duplication and waste at the NSF, people should instead be encouraging fiscal accountability. If waste and duplication are reduced, more science programs can be funded without raising taxes.
NASA employees know something that teeth-gnashing Republican-bashing bloggers do not; the times when NASA's budgets have been cut were when Democrats were running things in Congress, like in the 1970s and early 1990s. The reason why Democrats have not wanted to fund NASA in recent decades is simple; if it looks like it can be national defense, they are against it. That is why President Clinton and Senator John Kerry also got America's nuclear science program gutted in the 1990s and Democrats also shut down the Superconducting Super Collider, causing us to lose leadership in physics.
Senator Cruz and Republicans can't be worse for science now than Senator (now Secretary) Kerry and Democrats were in the 1990s.
NASA has been smart to shift to more climate change monitoring because it is the one area of science that Democrats accept. It gives them money and a high-profile to be able to do the other engineering they want and throw in a tiny bit of science, like funding studies of microbe growth on the International Space Station.
Last month, NASA got $530 million more than President Obama had requested for 2015. If Republicans hate science, why did the House Republicans in charge give more money than the president wanted? Because they believe in the Space Launch System rocket and they believe in the core mission of NASA.
Who was an instrumental voice in getting that budget increase for NASA?
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
(1) Byrnes, Mark. Politics and Space: Image-Making by NASA. Westport: Praeger, 1994
(2) I clearly don't know how to work the system. A pair of academics got the National Science Foundation to give them $500,000 to build Science 2.0 - four years after we already existed and in spite of the fact that the NSF had an account here. That is working the government funding system.
(3) NASA stonewalling Freedom of Information Act requests regarding how many days he was gone from his job while getting paid 7 figures in outside income talking about global warming has not helped that perception.
(4) See also: Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan Say Obama Is Killing Space Program