Update, March 17, 2017: This week the Trump Administration released a preliminary budget that outlines its vision for NASA's priorities, and it's much what you'd expect from what Trump said before his inauguration. The agency's budget would decrease just 0.8 percent overall, but within that number lies a great shuffle in what's prioritized and funded at NASA.
As we noted yesterday, Trump's NASA budget prioritizes the Europa Clipper flyby mission, Mars 2020 rover, the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion spacecraft. However, the Trump team would gut four big missions devoted to studying our own home planet.
As the original article below addresses, the position of the Trump Administration is that Earth observation would be better handled by other agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration so NASA could focus on spaceflight and exploration. But, as Motherboard noes:
Trump's budget also cripples NOAA's satellite division with a 22 percent funding cut-from $2.3 billion to $1.8 billion-so it's unlikely that either agency will be in a position to sustain America's leadership in Earth observation and climate science.
November 23, 2016: We'll have to wait until 2017 to find out how the Trump Administration approaches science and technology in America, but the hints are starting to pile up. The Guardian reports today that the President-Elect wants to eliminate all climate science by the agency-all of it-and refocus NASA on exploring the rest of the solar system.
This is not yet an official policy from the Trump team. But it's worth taking a moment to consider the implications in case this is the path forward. Earth is arguably the most important place NASA studies. We gotta live on this rock, after all.
What NASA Does
NASA is a big tent. Lots of people associate the agency with only its most spectacular achievements: the moon landing, space shuttles, the International Space Station, plans to someday put a person on Mars. It's easy to think of NASA as space exploration and nothing more. Within the very name-National Aeronautics and Space Administration-you'll find an oft-forgotten part of the NASA mission. NASA's X-plane research had led the way to amazing aircraft innovations without ever leaving the atmosphere.
Earth science is another severely under-appreciated chunk of what NASA does. It might seem weird that America's space exploration agency devotes so much energy to our homeworld, but no other government agency is equipped to study our planet from afar and tell us what's happening in the big picture. Unless you want to let the military take over.
Besides, when it comes to studying the Earth, you have to do a bunch of work from space. NASA's GOES satellites (the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system) provides a constant stream of Earth observations useful both for short-term weather forecasting and long-term climate forecasting. The DSCOVR mission (Deep Space Climate Observatory) watches for the powerful solar storms that could wreak havoc on our planet and all its advanced technology. NASA satellites track wildfires and sea ice. They follow hurricanes and monitor sea surface temperatures. They are the only eyes and ears that can see our home from another frame of reference, and with terrifying objectivity.
To Infinity and Beyond
Popular Mechanics has always loved NASA's big dreams. We want a base on the moon, bootprints on Mars, and kick-ass robots exploring the subsurface water on Europa and the weird lakes on Titan. It is endlessly frustrating to see the agency make these big plans and only to fall back because it's a taxpayer-funded organization that juggles competing obligations.
So-in theory-there is a note of sense to the Trump argument, one that Republican lawmakers have pushed for a while now. It goes like this: NASA ought to be about space exploration, and watching the Earth should be left to agencies designed for that purpose, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.
But here's the problem, as laid out by Scientific American:
With a budget about a quarter of NASA's, NOAA spends the bulk of its funds on weather forecasting and environmental monitoring. It contracts with NASA to use the space agency's Earth-observing satellites, and relies on NASA's help in building and launching satellites of its own. The NSF has a budget roughly three times smaller than NASA's, and has essentially no involvement in building, launching or operating satellites. In recent years Republican lawmakers have sought budget cuts to climate change-related Earth science programs at all three agencies.
Here are the numbers to know, from Popular Science:
Without NASA's participation in these kinds of climate monitoring, there will be a huge gap in the data that other agencies will struggle to fill. NASA's budget for Earth Sciences in 2017 is about $2 billion out of $19 billion total. NOAA's total budget for 2017 is only $5.8 billion.
Could Congress do this delicate surgery, taking Earth science off NASA's plate and giving NOAA the money to do the job right? Maybe. But if legislators are in a mood to cut budgets, and not in the mood to hear about climate change, then slashing the money for Earth observation suddenly becomes the likely outcome.
Recently I found myself reading Popular Mechanics' coverage of global warming from the late 1980s and early 90s, the time when the idea entered the public consciousness in a major way. What jumps off the page in when you read it in 2016 is the matter-of-factness. Back then there were no quotes from think tanks denying the trend and calling for "sound science," there was no deep alarmism that it's too late to do anything. There is just simple acknowledgement of what the data say and then, in typical PM style, a look to the future. Can we simulate what a warmer planet will be like? Will we need to geo-engineer crazy solutions to cool the planet? How will warming affect Antarctica, and vice versa? If we must dramatically reduce our fossil fuel consumption, then what will the post-gasoline cars of the future look like?
A quarter-century later, climate science is not merely politicized, it's politics. Just another thing on which America's two parties are a mile apart. Trump this week backed away a bit from previous statements that climate change is a hoax, saying that he has an open mind about the Paris climate agreements and that he thinks there is "some connectivity" between human activities and global warming. Yet an adviser told the Guardian:
I believe that climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing. Mr. Trump's decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science."
He's certainly right about the "heavily politicized" part.
Here's a notion that ought not be partisan: This is our planet. We want the best for it, now and in the future. And it's good to know what's happening to the place we live. That goes for the Earth's climate just as much as it does for stopping a solar storm from crippling our communications technology or spotting a doom asteroid headed this way so we can figure out what to do about it.
Who runs the satellites and telescopes we use to watch our world, and how we pay for them, is a worthy topic for a grown-up discussion. But whatever you think about how much the Earth's climate is or is not changing, the United States cannot afford to look deeper into the void just to avoid the conversation about what's happening here.
You Might Also Like