Earth: It’s the planet we live on. Understanding its complex dynamics is essential to the continuation of human civilization on our home world, and beyond it. That’s why NASA has spent the last decade heavily investing in its Earth Science Division, with the support of the Obama administration. The agency’s growing fleet of sophisticated Earth observation satellites has distinguished it as the world’s leading player in studying climate change, natural disasters, rising oceans, and other major issues that impact people who happen to reside on Earth.
President-elect Donald Trump, however, is beginning to shape a different vision for NASA, particularly with regards to Earth science. According to former congressman Robert Walker, Trump’s senior space policy advisor, NASA’s Earth observation programs are too “politicized” and must be scaled back.
“We see NASA in an exploration role, in deep space research,” Walker told the Guardian. “Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission […] 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.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, but let’s start with clarifying what Walker means by “other agencies.” In the lead-up to the election, Walker hinted that a Trump administration would redistrict NASA’s Earth observation efforts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is the government arm responsible for monitoring sea and air conditions. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has also been floated as a federal agency that could help pick up the slack on Earth science.
NOAA and NSF fund important work, but they receive a fraction of NASA’s annual budget for their research. Plus, both agencies already depend on partnerships with NASA to study Earth from space, as they lack the money and the spaceflight facilities to continue those projects without NASA’s support. Unless the Trump administration clearly outlines how non-NASA agencies will be compensated for taking over NASA’s leadership in this field, this idea seems like a rather blatant attempt to sweep Earth science under an administrative rug. So far, Walker has not elaborated on this strategy beyond affirming that “there would have to be some budget adjustments” in terms of retooling Earth science under other agencies.
For reference, Earth science has been on the margins of NASA’s interests since the agency’s inception under President Dwight Eisenhower. But it wasn’t until the NASA Authorization Act of 1985, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, that the agency became focused on Earth science as a dedicated goal. In 1986, NASA’s advisory council published a detailed roadmap for its new Earth observation division that called for collaboration with NOAA and NSF. NASA took the lead in providing the spaceflight infrastructure for satellite observations of Earth, while NOAA and the NSF have provided support on selected projects.
But as Earth science became more controversial over the subsequent decades—particularly climate change research—conflict has erupted over whether NASA’s prime directives should be constrained to ”deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work,” as Walker wrote in an October 19 op-ed for SpaceNews. It is not a new angle for the GOP. In early 2015, for instance, Republican senator Ted Cruz, Trump’s former presidential rival, lamented that President Obama “shifted [NASA’s] funding to global warming pursuits rather than carry out NASA’s core mission.”
At the heart of this argument is a denial of Earth science’s relevance to space science. As NASA administrator Charles Bolden pointed out to Cruz last year, Earth is, in fact, located in space. Even setting aside the urgent need to monitor global effects of human activity on our environment, our planet provides a veritable Rosetta Stone for identifying and deciphering patterns on countless other alien worlds. It is our most valuable planetary research sample. In fact, even the mere act of observing Earth from space has long been acknowledged to be profoundly revelatory and meaningful, because it exposes the harrowing fragility of our planet and its inhabitants.
NASA’s Earth observation missions not only keep tabs on dangerous environmental problems that will impact people regardless of political leanings, these efforts represent cutting-edge technological platforms that have encouraged innovations in many emerging fields.
Take the GOES-R spacecraft, launched on Saturday, which is the most advanced weather satellite ever built, offering the most precise meteorological forecasting system in space. From real-time storm monitoring to long-term climate projections, GOES-R will be a powerhouse of data. Take the ICESat-2 orbiter, poised to launch in the next two years, which has multiple applications for interdisciplinary research groups, including the US Navy. Take DSCOVR, a joint NOAA/NASA satellite launched in 2015, which captures imagery of Earth from a distance of one million miles, where it has a continuous view of our planet’s sunlit side; this allows it to seamlessly measure ozone health, atmospheric aerosols, and threats of massive incoming Sun flares.
In fact, take a stroll through NASA’s entire fleet of Earth observation missions, because these pioneering projects may soon find themselves on the chopping block under a Trump administration. This could leave the door open for other countries to edge out US leadership in one of the most important fields of the 21st century.
“The European Space Agency and the space ministries of Japan, China, and India won’t give up on Earth science from space,” said Jeff Dozier, an environmental scientist at the UC Santa Barbara, in Scientific American. “So it would seem that ‘making America great again’ could imply making American Earth science greater than those of our international competitors and partners.”
While there’s room for debate on the best direction for American Earth science endeavors, casting them all as “politically correct environmental monitoring,” in Walker’s words, is patently unfair, and potentially dangerous. Earth is the planet we live on, and scientists overwhelmingly agree that humans are damaging it in ways that are already coming back to bite us. Now is not the time to avert our gaze.