Last week, the Trump administration released a preliminary budget that outlines its vision for NASA. That vision includes an emphasis on space exploration and a de-emphasis on earth sciences. The organization’s budget decreases by 0.8 percent, with a 7 percent decrease to earth science initiatives.
Overall, the new NASA budget reflects Trump’s vision to “Make America Great Again.” He’s prioritizing space travel, moving forward with projects like the Europa Clipper flyby mission, Mars 2020 rover, Space Launch System rocket, and the Orion spacecraft, at the expense of earth sciences—highlighting the president’s skepticism about the science behind climate change.
The roughly $100 million cut to earth science will terminate four missions to examine the planet:
-PACE: a program for measuring changes to ocean ecosystems by tracking chlorophyll concentrations.
-OCO-3: a yet-to-be-launched module aimed at tracking atmospheric carbon dioxide.
-DSCOVR: the deep space climate observatory that has the capabilities to detect changes in ozone levels and atmospheric pollutants.
-CLARREO Pathfinder: set to be launched in 2020, the observatory was designed to keep accurate records of climate change on Earth.
It will also impede a NASA program that congressional Republicans have been intent on eliminating. Congressmen like Ted Cruz and House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) have hoped to “rebalance”—rebalance, of course, in their Randian eyes, means privatize or reallocate to another, likely less effective, agency, where “climate change” can be subtly shushed—the earth science division.
“The budget increases cooperation with industry through the use of public-private partnerships, focuses on the nation’s efforts on deep space exploration rather than Earth-centric research, and develops technologies that would achieve U.S. space goals and benefit the economy,” reads the budget outline.
It sounds nice, but let’s also forget the fact that a senior adviser to President Trump has described earth science as “politically correct environmental monitoring,” as noted in The Guardian.
The position of the Trump administration is that the earth sciences division would be better handled by agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Science Foundation (NSF), essentially handing off 58-years of NASA earth science data and satellites to underfunded, understaffed organizations.
They make redistribution sound like a mere shuffling of desks, as if the department covering Carbon Monoxide levels will be moved to the fourth floor of the NASA HQ, and those scientists tracking sea temperatures will be pushed to the basement with Milton as if this were the film Office Space.
That’s not how it works. For starters, the department’s $2 billion budget goes to thousands of NASA technicians building these satellites. It goes to NASA contractors like SpaceX. It goes to the men and women at Cape Canaveral who launch the satellites into orbit. It goes to the engineers operating these satellites.
Moreover, it goes to these essential programs—and the scientists heading them—that NASA satellites monitor:
-Atmospheric aerosols, tiny particles like dust, sea salts, volcanic ash, factory pollution that, depending on their type, can warm or cool the surface of the Earth or, if inhaled, can harm health
-Carbon monoxide levels
-Chlorophyll levels, which give scientists insights into the health of the ocean
-Clouds, which help determine the Earth’s climate system
-Land and sea temperatures—along surface temperatures
-They take pictures of hurricanes so the NOAA can monitor
-Freshwater aquifers and soil moisture, information essential to farmers
-Sea ice and shrinking ice caps
-The fucking hole in the ozone
“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,” reports Popular Science. “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.”
Even if restructuring these NASA satellite programs were an easy option, the Trump administration has found a way to make it even more difficult because the budget proposal also cripples the NOAA’s satellite division, the division that would absorb much of NASA’s satellites and earth sciences, with a 22 percent funding cut—down from $2.3 billion to $1.8 billion.
If this administration continues to hack away at any science researching climate change, the effects will be felt by all Americans. Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, describes some of the everyday impact felt from NASA earth science in an interview with Science Magazine:
“This morning, people [in Washington, D.C.,] went onto the [subway] with an umbrella. Because they know that it’s going to rain. But for many of the forecasts we’re addressing today, we want forecasts that are longer. For each of these forecasts, there’s an immediate business case. How do I fuel aircraft, if I’m in aviation? How do I deal with traffic? What are the goods that should be in the front of the store? These are decisions being made based on earth science data.
Whether it’s in agriculture, whether it’s in water management, whether it’s in trade, whether it’s in logistics—these kinds of data really matter. Then you go into the longer timescales, and now you’re into real-estate development. You’re into risk assessment, the reinsurance business.”
To add to the potential clusterfuck, the entire premise of removing “earth sciences” from NASA’s to-do list makes no sense because the agency was literally founded on “understanding the Earth and the atmosphere.” Just read the beginning of Section 102c of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which lays out the role of NASA:
“The aeronautical and space activities of the United States shall be conducted so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:
(1) The expansion of human knowledge 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.”
So what happens when Trump NASA stops studying earth sciences?
The damage from environmental ignorance likely becomes permanent.
Top photo by Mat Hampson CC BY-SA 2.0
Tom Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.