Soon, NASA will be observing plants from a space-bound satellite. That is, unless the Trump administration puts a stop to it.
On Tuesday, the space agency announced its first new earth science mission since the 2016 election: the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory, or GeoCARB. The observatory, which will be led by Berrien Moore of the University of Oklahoma, plans to monitor vegetation stress in the Americas from a distance of about 22,000 miles. It also intends to observe how greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane – are processed in those environments.
Basically, it’s the kind of mission that climate scientists rely on, demonstrating big-picture trends that are nearly impossible to track from Earth. It’s also the kind of mission that Robert S. Walker, space policy advisor to Mr. Trump, has promised to slash. Could this be push-back from an agency anticipating cuts? And could the Trump administration dismantle GeoCARB?
“It’s definitely not a last-ditch response,” John O’Meara, a professor of physics at St. Michael’s College, in Colchester, Vt., tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “The process for this program would have taken many years, 15 proposals down-selected to one. The money has already been budgeted within NASA for it. It’s going to be harder to dismantle something like that.”
In theory, Trump could undo GeoCARB, or even NASA’s entire earth science division. Since NASA is an agency of the executive branch, its direction is often determined by the president’s scientific priorities. The agency’s highest-ranked official, the administrator of NASA, is named by presidential appointment.
An autocratic president could cancel virtually any mission without input from his advisory boards, notes former NASA chief technologist Mason Peck.
“In that case, it would still take some time and a drawn-out budget process to make that decision real,” Dr. Peck, a professor of aerospace engineering at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., tells the Monitor in an email. “Practically, though, there are so many state-level and national stakeholders in the important work NASA does that traditional congressional advocates are unlikely to go along with dismantling NASA in a significant way.”
It can be politically difficult to stop ongoing missions, particularly because canceled missions mean voided contracts. And contractors often require payment, whether or not the mission is completed.
“It’s a mistake to think that canceling a NASA mission saves money,” Peck says. “In fact, it wastes money in the short term.”
Missions like GeoCARB can also funnel money back into local economies by facilitating research grants. And the economic benefits may go beyond the academic world.
“GeoCARB mission certainly continues the campaign of successful Earth science that has proven how humans impact Earth’s environment,” Peck says. “But there’s more to this mission than further improving our understanding of climate-change mechanisms. This data will directly benefit US companies with a stake in global agriculture, open new areas of research, and advance technology with broad relevance right here on Earth.”
While NASA's budget is proposed by the president’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Congress is ultimately responsible for adjusting and allocating funding. That’s not necessarily good news for NASA’s earth science division either – the agency’s budget has shrunk nearly every year since 1966, where it peaked at 4.41 percent of the federal budget, according to the OMB. Today, NASA consumes around 0.5 percent of national funding.
That said, NASA’s total funding for GeoCARB is just $166 million – less than 1 percent of the agency’s yearly budget spread out over five years.
But while frugality could work for GeoCARB, it could also work against it. It’s generally easier to cancel smaller projects, notes Dr. O’Meara, because they don’t rely as heavily on external contracts. However, the mission’s budget, which would have seemed conservative to Congress, has already been passed.
“As with everything in the Trump administration, I would be negligent to say it is impossible for this thing to be canceled,” O’Meara says. “We know so very little about what the actual policy direction is.”
Either way, it won’t be the first time a president has redirected NASA’s efforts. A major goal of the Obama administration was to beef up the agency’s earth science division. In order to do so, O’Meara says, the president and OMB consistently pressed Congress with high budget proposals.
“As a result, earth science flourished through the years at the expense of some other missions,” O’Meara says. “But Congress has pushed back on that, expanding deep space initiatives like Orion. It’s a push and pull that I expect will happen with earth science, but potentially on a much more dramatic scale.”