Ted Cruz Distorts NASA's Mission, Budget

03/18/2015 03:21 pm ET | Updated Mar 18, 2015
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The following post first appeared on FactCheck.org.

During his critique of NASA’s spending on earth and atmospheric sciences at a recent committee hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz made some misleading claims regarding the agency’s budgets and the science that it conducts.

  • Cruz said there has been a “disproportionate increase” since 2009 in funding of earth sciences. There has been an increase — and it is larger than some other NASA areas — but spending on earth sciences is lower now as a percentage of NASA’s budget than it was in fiscal 2000. And the increase reflects an effort to restore funding that had been cut.
  • Cruz also suggested that the “core mission” of NASA does not include earth sciences. In fact, studying the Earth and atmosphere has been central to NASA’s mission since its creation in 1958.
  • In criticizing NASA’s spending on earth sciences, Cruz also said the agency needs to “get back to the hard sciences” — meaning space exploration and not earth and atmospheric research. The term “hard sciences” refers to fields including physics and chemistry, which are central to the research being done as part of NASA’s earth science programs.

Budget Priorities

Cruz, a potential 2016 presidential candidate who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, held a March 12 hearing on the fiscal year 2016 budget request for NASA. During the hearing, he said that the agency spends too much money and effort on earth sciences.

Cruz, March 12: As we begin the process of putting together a roadmap for the future of NASA, there is one vital question that this committee should examine: Should NASA focus primarily inwards, or outwards beyond lower Earth orbit. Since the end of the last administration we have seen a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds that have been allocated to the earth science program at the expense of and in comparison to exploration and space operations, planetary science, heliophysics and astrophysics, which I believe are all rooted in exploration and should be central to the core mission of NASA. … I am concerned that NASA in the current environment has lost its full focus on that core mission.

Cruz is entitled to his opinion, but his version of NASA’s recent budget history fails to tell the whole story. It ignores deep budget cuts that were made in NASA’s earth sciences funding under the Bush administration that caused concern within the scientific community and that prompted specific recommendations to restore that funding.

To illustrate his point on inward versus outward focus, Cruz showed a chart comparing the agency’s 2009 budget with the president’s proposal for fiscal year 2016. His chart correctly showed that the earth sciences budget would increase by 41 percent during that seven-year time span, from $1.38 billion to a requested $1.95 billion. Using inflation-adjusted dollars, the increase is 30 percent.

Though Cruz is correct that spending on earth sciences has increased during the Obama administration, his statement that it is a “disproportionate increase” does not fully reflect NASA’s budget history. In fact, NASA’s spending on earth sciences in the past has been higher as a percentage of the total budget.

In 2000, for example, the enacted budget for earth sciences was $1.69 billion, which is equal to $2.29 billion in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation — more than the 2016 request. In 2000, that amount represented about 12.4 percent of the total enacted NASA budget; in the 2016 request, that proportion is 10.5 percent.

Cruz’s comments ignore a debate over earth sciences funding dating back to the early days of the George W. Bush administration. Earth sciences funding was cut approximately 37 percent from fiscal year 2001 through fiscal year 2006, as documented in a 2008 report by the NASA Office of Inspector General. A 2005 report from the National Research Council, which is part of the U.S. National Academies, criticized those cuts. “Today the nation’s Earth observation program is at risk,” wrote the authors, which included experts from many universities around the country. “Opportunities to discover new knowledge about Earth are diminished as mission after mission is canceled, descoped, or delayed because of budget cutbacks, which appear to be largely the result of new obligations to support flight programs that are part of the Administration’s vision for space exploration.”

In 2007, the National Research Council of the National Academies said there was an urgent need to increase funding in order for the agency to “restore its leadership in Earth science and applications.” The increase in recent years reflects an effort to follow that recommendation.

NASA’s Decadal Survey, a periodic effort by scientists to prioritize research for the next 10 years, found in 2007 that “[t]he U.S. government … should renew its investment in Earth-observing systems and restore its leadership in Earth science and applications.”

In a 2012 assessment of NASA’s earth science division, a NASA advisory committee chaired by Dennis Hartmann, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, concluded that earth sciences funding should be restored to the level of $2 billion in fiscal 2006 dollars. Despite the increases in recent years, NASA remains more than $300 million short of that goal.

Raymond Schmitt, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution specializing in oceanography, sits on NASA’s Earth Science Subcommittee, an advisory panel. He told us that the hope in 2011 was that NASA’s earth sciences budget would reach about $2.3 billion by 2015. “What I have seen of the earth science budget strikes me with how depressingly flat it is,” he said, adding that the “notional,” or projected requests, for years beyond 2016 rise only slightly, and not at all when inflation is factored in.

Schmitt said that in his opinion, the budget should be at $2.3 billion for earth sciences. That’s his opinion and he’s entitled to it, just as Cruz is entitled to his. But Cruz isn’t telling the whole story when he says there has been a “disproportionate increase” in the earth science programs since 2009.

Mission to Earth

Cruz also said that “[i]n my judgment, this does not represent a fair or appropriate allocation of resources, that it is shifting resources away from the core function of NASA to other functions.”

Again, Cruz is entitled to his opinion on how NASA’s money should be spent, but in expressing his opinion he leaves a false impression that earth and atmospheric science is not a core function. We reviewed documents from the early days of NASA, and found that a focus on earth and atmospheric science is in fact fundamental to NASA’s mission.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which created NASA, listed its first objective as: “The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” Under “functions of the administration,” the original law says NASA’s mission should include monitoring what goes on below as well as above the Earth. The law directs NASA to “[a]rrange for participation by the scientific community in planning scientific measurements and observations to be made through use of aeronautical and space vehicles, and conduct or arrange for the conduct of such measurements and observations.” This language is preserved in the 2010 NASA reauthorization act, which passed Congress and was signed into law. The 2014 version passed the House but not the Senate.

The 2007 Decadal Survey’s recommendation to recommit to earth sciences research is consistent with longstanding agency goals. Though exact dollar amounts are difficult to compare because of differences in categorization, even earlier years’ budgets available on the NASA HQ Library illustrate that NASA always had a strong focus toward Earth as well as away from it.

In the FY 1965 budget estimate, a summary of the geophysics and astronomy program outlined the importance of these areas of research (on page RD 17):

NASA, 1964: The fundamental objective of the Geophysics and Astronomy Program is to increase our knowledge and understanding of the space environment of the Earth, the Sun and its relationships to the Earth, the geodetic properties of the Earth, and the fundamental physical nature of the Universe.

Knowledge of these areas is basic, not only to our understanding of the problems of survival and navigation in space, but also to the improvement of our ability to make technological advances in other fields. The understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere is important for advancement of weather forecasting, for solution of spacecraft reentry problems and for study of the atmospheres of other planets.

Moving ahead a decade, the 1975 budget estimate put the study of Earth as the first of NASA’s achievements. NASA’s programs, it says, “extend man’s knowledge of the earth, its environment, the solar system, and the universe.” (See page AS 1.) The overall research and development program was intended to use “ground, air, and space systems to demonstrate space techniques to benefit mankind in such areas as weather and climate, pollution monitoring, earth resources survey, earth and ocean physics, communications, and space processing.” (See page SUM 1.)

The same was true in 1990. The 1990 budget estimate’s first stated goal for NASA’s research program is to “[a]dvance our scientific knowledge of Earth and of the forces and systems that shape our planet.” (See page AS 3.)

There appears to have been no point in NASA’s history when better understanding of the Earth was not considered a central project of the agency.

Space Exploration and Flooded Launch Sites

The decrease in funding for exploration and space operations — which Cruz put at 7.6 percent since 2009 — is actually larger than the Texas senator stated. It dropped from $9.27 billion to a requested $8.51 billion, an 8.2 percent decrease. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the decrease is 15.7 percent.

But to claim that this shows a decreasing focus on space exploration is misleading. In 2009, NASA still maintained the space shuttle program, at a cost of $2.98 billion. That has been entirely wiped from the books now with the official retirement of that program in 2012, accounting for a significant change to the overall budget picture. That line item has been replaced with others, however, representing new efforts to continue outward space exploration.

The $2.86 billion requested for “exploration systems development,” for example, provides funding for the Space Launch System rocket program and Orion, along with associated programs. Together, these projects will eventually combine to hopefully take humans all the way to Mars, a goal Cruz has repeatedly highlighted. There is also more than a billion dollars for contracts with private space exploration companies, such as SpaceX, another step forward that Cruz has touted in the past, and an expenditure that did not exist in 2009.

Furthermore, in his response to a question from Cruz, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the decrease in budget for exploration and space operations represents an effort to reduce the costs of sending humans into space. “That decrease is actually a little bit of what we were trying to do, get the cost of flying humans into space down,” he said. “That’s what’s driving the market, is reducing launch costs.”

Cruz’s objection to focusing inward toward Earth is in line with his stance on global warming — he incorrectly claims it is not supported by evidence. NASA is a central figure in helping to measure and understand the ongoing changes to climate. Along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA found that 2014 was likely the warmest year since recording began in 1880, and that nine of the 10 warmest years (the exception being 1998) have occurred this century.

In one of his responses, Bolden referenced NASA’s climate change research and its importance with regard to space exploration:

Bolden, March 12: We can’t go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center goes under water and we don’t know it. That’s understanding our environment. … It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth’s environment, because this is the only place that we have to live.

The Kennedy Space Center is in Cape Canaveral, on the coast of Florida. In a 2014 paper published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, NASA and Columbia University researchers analyzed the climate-related resilience of NASA facilities. They found that the sea at Kennedy Space Center has risen between 1913 and 2008 at a pace of about 22.6 millimeters per decade. A rise in sea level is a global trend that is almost certainly accelerating, according to recent research published in Nature.

The coastal flood events at Kennedy that now happen on average once every 10 years will occur between two and three times more frequently by 2050, according to the Bulletin of the AMS paper. According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, sea level rise could approach four feet by 2100, which could prove to be a major issue for Kennedy, a facility that “would cost more to replace than at any other NASA site.”

Hard Sciences

Climate science is only one focus of the earth sciences program at NASA. The agency studies the atmosphere, oceans, ice, ecosystems and how all of these interact. NASA’s satellites advance understanding of how storms form and how land use is changing around the world, and they help predict food shortages in developing countries.

By any possible definition, these types of programs fall under the category of “hard sciences.” Yet, Cruz suggested they are not when he criticized NASA for increasing spending on earth science programs by 41 percent since 2009.

Cruz, March 12: That in my view is disproportionate, and it is not consistent with the reason so many talented young scientists have joined NASA. And so it’s my hope that this committee will work in a bipartisan manner to help refocus those priorities where they should be, to get back to the hard sciences, to get back to space, to focus on what makes NASA special.

According to a definition from Dictionary.com, “hard science” is “any of the natural or physical sciences, as chemistry, biology, physics, or astronomy, in which aspects of the universe are investigated by means of hypotheses and experiments” — central components and methods of NASA’s earth sciences program. The term “soft sciences” generally refers to social science, such as psychology or anthropology. Cruz’s office did not respond to requests for clarification regarding the senator’s reference to “hard sciences.”

The day after the NASA budget hearing, Christine McEntee, the executive director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union, which represents more than 60,000 Earth and space scientists, sent Cruz a letter saying that earth sciences “constitute hard sciences.”

AGU, March 12: Earth sciences are a fundamental part of science. They constitute hard sciences that help us understand the world we live in and provide a basis for knowledge and understanding of natural hazards, weather forecasting, air quality, and water availability, among other concerns.

The letter cited NASA’s ability to help coordinate response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to track dangerous algal blooms, and to aid in flood prediction, earthquake response and storm tracking.

Editor’s Note: SciCheck is made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.

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