Studying distant planets is not an excuse to ignore our own, the agency's administrator says.
Now that NASA's Congressional oversight is controlled by a pair of climate change deniers, perhaps the agency feels like it has to be a bit defensive. Monday, the agency's administrator told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other critics, who have said the agency should give up on Earth science, that they couldn't be more wrong.
"As we all know, the most important planet we study is the one on which we live—Earth. The reality is our planet is changing, and the data continues to prove this, but we're on it," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in his annual State of NASA speech. "NASA is a leader in Earth and climate science and our constantly expanding view of our planet from space is helping us understand Earth and its changes."
Bolden specifically highlighted the five Earth science missions that the agency has launched in the last year, such as the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite, which will monitor drought and soil water levels from space.
That seems to be a specific shot across the bow at Cruz, who has previously said that President Obama's NASA has been wasting too much time on climate change issues. Indeed, Earth science projects are believed to be the ones most vulnerable under Cruz's watch. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MI), a member of the House committee overseeing NASA, has previously tried to cut $650 million worth of NASA's Earth science programs, and Cruz's statements suggest he'll try to follow suit.
"One of the problems with the Obama administration is that it has degraded NASA. It has degraded for space exploration, degraded manned exploration because the Obama administration has undervalued that and shifted to funding other priorities," Cruz said in a statement. "It shifted the funding to global warming pursuits rather than carry out NASA's core mission."
Bolden said that Cruz and others who have said the agency has lost its way are wrong.
"Some have said that NASA is adrift," Bolden said. "If you travel the world, as I regularly do, and see the enthusiasm I see for NASA everywhere I go, or interact with, as I do regularly, the tens of thousands of students around the world from elementary through graduate school who are excited about the dream of one day traveling into space and visiting Mars, I think you'll come to a different conclusion. That the idea we're adrift is an empty hook trying to catch yesterday's fish."
Okay, the fishing analogy was a bit of a lame joke—which Bolden later admitted—but his message, in general, was that all of NASA's missions are necessary, and that there are perhaps no missions more important than the ones that monitor Earth.
President Obama's budget request for Earth science programs in 2016 is $1.94 billion, a fair jump over the $1.77 billion the agency got in 2014. Overall, NASA's budget request is a half billion-dollar increase over the 2015 budget of $18 billion, which Bolden said he sees as "a clear vote of confidence" in the agency. Whether he and Obama have any hope of getting a budget of that size approved by a conservative Congress is another question altogether, but the agency and the president appear to be ambitious in what they're asking for.
Bolden ended his speech by suggesting that, with better outreach, taxpayers won't mind the increase.
"When someone asks where you work, stick your chest out and say 'I work for NASA,'" he said. "We need to share what we're doing with the American taxpayer so they can brag the way we do when we talk about our systems."