The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States will likely bring an end to a golden age of Earth science at NASA. While not much is known about Trump’s general space policies beyond a commitment to “global space leadership” and support for commercial spaceflight, his views on Earth science and climate change are largely in line with Republican Congressional appropriators.
Funding-wise, NASA’s Earth science programs have had a good run under the Obama administration. The agency’s Earth science budget has grown by about 50 percent during Obama’s tenure, even as much of the rest of NASA’s science budget has remained flat.
And users have responded. A week ago, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General released a report on the state of the agency’s Earth science programs, and it offered a largely favorable review. Perhaps most notable was the rapid increase in usage of data collected by NASA satellites about the planet by government agencies, scientists, private entities, and other stakeholders. Since 2000, the report found, the number of data products NASA has delivered to users rose from 8.14 million to a staggering 1.42 billion in 2015.
But funding increases for Earth science under Obama prompted an increasing amount of frustration among Republicans in the House and Senate, who said the agency should be focused on exploration of worlds other than Earth. For example, at a 2015 hearing on NASA’s Earth science programs, Texas Senator Ted Cruz said, “We’ve seen a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds going to the Earth sciences program at the expense of funding for exploration and space operations, planetary sciences, heliophysics, and astrophysics, which I believe are all rooted in exploration and should be central to NASA’s core mission. We need to get back to the hard sciences, to manned space exploration, and to the innovation that has been integral to NASA.”
Although Trump does not have any formal advisers on space policy, his campaign did ask former Congressman Robert Walker to draft a space policy, which seems in line with those Congressional priorities. During a meeting last month at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, Walker elaborated on that vision, including Earth science.
To that end, Walker said, NASA should focus on deep space achievements rather than Earth science. Like a number of Republicans in Congress, Walker also suggested Earth science missions should be transferred to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, he added, “there would have to be some budget adjustments” as part of the transfer.
Thus, while it’s less clear how NASA’s overall space policy will change under a Trump administration, it seems fairly certain he will attempt to undo President Obama’s increases for Earth science funding. The irony is that NASA’s focus on Earth science really crystallized during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Many of the satellites praised by NASA’s Inspector General earlier this month trace their roots to those two Republican presidents.