What Might Happen to NASA’s Earth Science Programs Under Bridenstine?

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Imagine the following scenario: NASA’s Earth Science division gets its budget cut with key missions focused on climate change canceled.

The new NASA administrator then announces the division will be dismantled, with various programs divided among other federal departments, in order to better focus the space agency on exploration. The bulk of the programs end up at NOAA, which the NASA administrator says is a much more appropriate home for them.

NOAA, however, is already reeling from spending cuts. Struggling to perform its own forecasting duties on a reduced budget, the agency has little bandwidth to take on any additional responsibilities. And the funding allocated for the NASA programs that were just transferred over is woefully inadequate for the tasks at hand.

The result is a bureaucratic train wreck in which America’s Earth science and climate research programs gradually wither away due to mismanagement, neglect and lack of funding. The ability of the nation — and the world — to understand and address the changes the planet experiencing is greatly reduced. At some future date, another administration will have to rebuild a program in shambles that was once the envy of the world.

Sound far fetched? Think again. It could very well happen if the Trump Administration and the man it has nominated to lead NASA get what they want out of Congress.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine

Let’s start with the nominee. Tea Party conservative Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is a global warming denier from an oil-producing state who proposed eliminating Earth Science from NASA’s institutional objectives in a bill he introduced last year called the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA).

ASRA is a catch-all bill that includes broad changes to U.S. civil, military and commercial space programs. Bridenstine did not design the measure to be passed as a single bill, but rather as a series of distinct pieces of legislation.

Thus far, Congress have approved few if any of the bill’s provisions relating to NASA. However, that could change if Bridenstine becomes the space agency’s administrator and begins working with Congressional oversight committees and the newly revived National Space Council chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.

A Slimmed Down Agency

Bridenstine sees Earth Science as one of a number of extraneous duties that have hobbled the space agency’s efforts to expand human presence into deep space.

“NASA should undergo reorganization, altering its mission with a clearer focus, ridding itself of extraneous responsibilities handled elsewhere within the Federal Government or private industry, and standardizing activities across the whole of NASA,” ASRA states.

NASA’s charter would be rewritten to conform with a “pioneering doctrine” focused on “expansion of the human sphere of influence throughout the Solar System.”

“The objectives of such pioneering shall be to increase access to destinations in space, explore the possible options for development at these destinations, demonstrate the engineering feasibility of such development, and transition those activities to Federal agencies outside of the Administration or persons or entities outside of the Federal Government,” the bill states.

Currently, NASA’s first three institutional objectives are written as:

(1) The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.
(2) The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles.
(3) The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space.

ASRA would replace these objectives with the following:

(1) The expansion of the human sphere of influence throughout the Solar System.
(2) To be among those who first arrive at a destination in space and to open it for subsequent use and development by others.
(3) To create and prepare infrastructure precursors in support of the future use and development of space by others.

Earth Science is clearly targeted for elimination. Note the removal of the phrase “the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere” from the list of institutional objectives.

Bridenstine’s legislation would also eliminate the following objectives that focus on science, technology, research and development:

(4) The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes.
(5) The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere.
(9) The preservation of the United States preeminent position in aeronautics and space through research and technology development related to associated manufacturing processes.

In short, exploration and commercial activities would be in. Earth science, climate research, research and technology development would be out.

ASRA would require NASA to hire an independent consultant to prepare a report identifying any agency activities that do not comply with the pioneering doctrine. Those programs would be consolidated, downsized, transferred to other federal agencies, privatized or eliminated.

Other than Earth science, it’s not clear exactly exactly where some of these other functions would be transferred to within the government. Or whether the Trump Administration and Congress would go along with such a major restructuring of NASA’s purpose and programs.

The administration is unlikely to propose major changes to the space agency until an administrator is in place and Pence’s National Space Council is fully up and running. Any changes would probably be reflected in the FY 2019 budget proposal the administration will send to Congress early next year.

Climate Research vs. Weather Forecasting

Although Bridenstine has expressed strong support for programs that observe Earth from space, his reason for why the government should fund these activities is narrowly focused. One of his main goals during his five years in Congress is to improve weather forecasting to protect residents of Oklahoma from tornadoes that devastate the state each year.

To that end, he has sponsored legislation to “re-balance” NOAA’s spending on weather forecasting and what he views as a non-existent global warming threat, as he explained in a speech on the floor of the House.

The accuracy of Bridenstine’s claims in this video are questionable. Climate scientists say Bridenstine is wrong in saying the Earth stopped warming years ago. They say the climate is warming rapidly and dangerously as a result of human activity.

Politifact rated Bridenstine’s claim the Obama Administration was spending 30 times more on climate change research than on weather forecasting research as mostly false. In addition to finding the spending ratio as low as 2.7-1, PolitiFact also noted substantial overlap between climate change research and weather forecasting.

Protecting his constituents from tornadoes is the not only reason for Bridenstine to doubt global warming. Oklahoma is heavily dependent upon extracting oil and coal — fossil fuels that scientists say are causing global temperatures to rise. The state’s prosperity is dependent on people using more, not less, fossil fuels.

Bridenstine and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) co-sponsored the American Energy Renaissance Act, which sought to increase oil, gas and coal production. The measured died in Congress in 2015, although some of its provisions — such as construction of the Keystone oil pipeline — have been implemented by the Trump Administration.

A Convergence of Views

Not surprisingly, many of Bridenstine’s views on climate change, energy policy and the proper role of NASA are aligned with those of the administration that nominated him to run the space agency. That is particularly true on Earth science and climate research.

Robert Walker, a former Congressman who served as space policy adviser for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and provided informal assistance during the transition, outlined the incoming administration’s civil space policy in a speech last December.

“Operation of the Earth-centric government missions will be turned over to more appropriate agencies under our plan,” he said. “NASA is to focus on deep space, both in terms of its science and its exploration. The idea here is that NASA will turn its full attention back to its early goals of being an agency of exploration and learning about space writ large.”

That particular aspect of the proposed policy has been widely criticized by many scientists and other space advocates, concerned that the incoming administration seeks to end research particularly in controversial areas like climate change. Walker, asked about that issue, said that was not the intent of the policy.

“We’re not talking about ending the programs. We’re talking about transferring the programs, lock, stock and barrel, to another agency,” he said. “I’ve seen some misinterpretation saying that we were looking at ending the whole business of climate science. That wasn’t the concept at all. The concept here is to put it in places like NSF, NOAA and places that have vast expertise in those areas.”

Walker did not discuss the details of how such a transfer, including that of personnel and facilities, would be carried out. Other government agencies, even those that operate their own Earth science satellites today, often rely on NASA for its expertise and other resources to develop and launch those spacecraft.

Walker has called climate research “heavily politicized,” a view widely shared within the Trump Administration and leaders of the Republican-controlled Congress. Trump has gone so far as to claim that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese government.

There does appear to be some support for transferring Earth science out of NASA in Congress. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a climate change skeptic who heads up the Senate Subcommittee on Space, has complained about the amount of money spends on these programs publicly questioned whether Earth Science should be a core function of NASA. House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), who also doubts climate change is a threat, has made similar comments.

Neither Walker, Cruz or Smith have advocated completely ending climate change research. But, it is clear they would reduce and shift the programs so NASA could focus on other priorities.

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

Trump’s Assault on Climate Change

Walker might be right in saying that the Trump Administration doesn’t want to end climate change  programs entirely, but it has show little willingness to fund them, either.

On his first day in office, the president cancelled the Presidential Climate Action Plan, an Obama Administration initiative to address global warming. The web page was replaced by the America First Energy Plan, which emphasizes an increase in fossil fuel use.

Canceling the action plan was the Trump Administration’s first volley in a full-scale assault on climate change efforts. These actions include, but have not been limited to, the following:

Under Trump’s proposed fiscal  year 2018 budget, NASA’s Earth Science division would see its budget cut from $1.9 billion to $1.75 billion. Arguing the United States can’t afford them, the administration proposed canceling four missions and turning off instruments on an existing satellite. The list includes:

  • Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite — cancelled
  • Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI) instrument to be flown aboard Joint Polar Satellite System 2 spacecraft in 2021 — cancelled
  • Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3) instrument to be placed on the International Space Station (ISS) — cancelled
  • Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder instrument to be flown on ISS — canceled
  • Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft — Earth-facing instruments turned off.

PACE, RBI, OCO-3 and CLARREO Pathfinder are missions that are in various stages of development. DSCOVR is currently in space at a distance of 1 million miles (1.6 million km) from Earth, where it observes the planet and monitors space weather.

Earth as seen from the DSCOVR spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

The four missions that would be canceled outright would provide valuable data to climate scientists. For example, CLARREO Pathfinder mission involves placing a reflected solar spectrometer on the space station “that will detect the complete spectrum of radiation from the Sun reflected by Earth,” NASA says.

CLARREO Pathfinder is a precursor to a more ambitious CLARREO mission, whose purpose to to allow scientists “to produce highly accurate climate records to test climate projections in order to improve models and enable sound policy decisions.”

CLARREO Pathfinder (Credit: NASA)

The OCO-3 instrument is “designed to investigate important questions about the distribution of carbon dioxide on Earth as it relates to growing urban populations and changing patterns of fossil fuel combustion.”

PACE’s data would “reveal interactions between the ocean and atmosphere, including how they exchange carbon dioxide and how atmospheric aerosols might fuel phytoplankton growth in the surface ocean,” according to NASA. “Novel uses of PACE data – from identifying the extent and duration of harmful algal blooms to improving our understanding of air quality – will result in direct economic and societal benefits.”

RBI would not only assist scientists with long-range weather forecasts, it would also “extend the unique global climate measurements of the Earth’s radiation budget provided by the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy Systems (CERES) instruments since 1998,” the space agency says.

The administration’s proposed cuts in the NASA Earth Science budget received a mixed reception on Capitol Hill. House appropriators elected to cut the budget even deeper than the Trump Administration proposed, allocating $1.7 billion as opposed to $1.75 billion. Senate appropriators rejected the proposed cut, keeping Earth Science spending flat at $1.9 billion and restoring most of the missions the administration has proposed to cancel.

The Trump Administration’s proposed cuts at the space agency are actually relatively mild compared with the ones it has proposed for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is the most logical place for NASA’s Earth Science to end up if they are transferred anywhere.

The Administration’s FY 2018 budget would cut NOAA spending by 16 percent, a reduction of $900 million. A large part of the cut involves slashing the Polar Follow-on (PFO) program, which aims to develop two new satellites. However, NOAA’s weather and climate agency’s research office would also experience a 32 percent reduction in its budget.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a $5.6 billion budget for NOAA, which would be a $85.1 million decrease in the agency’s budget. House appropriators have approved cutting $710 million from NOAA’s budget, which would be a 14 percent reduction. Funding for climate science would drop by 19 percent.

The House and the Senate still need to work out their differences on NASA and NOAA funding in conference committee. It’s not clear when Congress will approve these spending bills and send them to the president for his signature.

NASA’s Future, Uncertain

It’s unclear how much of the vision Bridenstine laid out in ASRA might be taken up by Congress. Any major changes in NASA’s purpose or institutional objectives would probably set off  a major political battle. The space agency has a lot of constituencies to satisfy.

There was a loud uproar in Congress when the Obama Administration proposed canceling the Ares rocket and Orion spacecraft programs in 2010. Congress managed to save Orion while the Ares program morphed into the Space Launch System. As part of the compromise, the administration was able to pursue a controversial commercial crew program.

As the uproar died down, budget negotiations settled into a familiar pattern for most of Obama’s presidency. The administration would proposed a budget that spent more than Congress wanted to appropriate for commercial crew, Earth science and technology development and less than legislators wanted for SLS, Orion and planetary science. Congress would add money to the programs it liked at the expense of the administration’s priorities.

Neither side got exactly what it wanted, but it was an arrangement both were able to live with. Thus, NASA became part of the government where the sharp partisan divides afflicting the federal government were largely absent.

Bridenstine’s plans for NASA could break that consensus. And that is probably one of the reasons Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have expressed concerns about putting a politician in charge of NASA.

It will be interesting to see if the Senate approves Bridenstine’s nomination and what, if any, major changes he and the Trump Administration make to the space agency.