Special Report: Senate Commerce Committee

Cruz’s Mission for NASA: More Space, Less Earth

The new space subcommittee chairman thinks the Obama administration has the agency overly focused on climate change at the expense of exploring the cosmos.

Sen. Ted Cruz speaks to the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition convention on January 18, 2015 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Feb. 23, 2015, 3 p.m.

If Ted Cruz is NASA’s Grim Reap­er, he doesn’t talk like it.

To hear the new chair­man of the Sen­ate’s Space, Sci­ence, and Com­pet­it­ive­ness Sub­com­mit­tee talk about NASA is to hear none of the budget-slash­ing zeal that comes out when he talks about, say, the IRS. In­stead, he talks at length about put­ting more Amer­ic­ans in space and send­ing them farther than ever be­fore. He gushes about the agency that has “ex­cited the spir­its of every per­son in this coun­try, every boy and girl.”

NASA, Cruz says, needs sav­ing. And if do­ing so provides him with an­oth­er cudgel to bat­ter the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, well, it’s no sur­prise that he’s eager to have that fight. And, yes, he has seen the head­lines:

“Cli­mate Change”“Deny­ing Ted Cruz Will Over­see NASA.” “Oh dear, they’ve put Ted Cruz in charge of NASA.” “Ted Cruz’s con­trol of Sen­ate sci­ence pan­el trig­gers anxi­ety among some.”

The po­ten­tial 2016 pres­id­en­tial con­tender laughs off such skep­ti­cism as typ­ic­al par­tis­an at­tacks, then quickly launches in­to one of his own. “I am deeply con­cerned that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has un­der­val­ued space ex­plor­a­tion, has di­ver­ted NASA from its core pri­or­it­ies,” he says. “We need to get back to the cent­ral mis­sion of NASA.”

In Cruz’s mind, Pres­id­ent Obama has spent too much of the agency’s re­sources study­ing the plan­et we already in­hab­it, rather than fo­cus­ing its mis­sions on the “in­fin­ity and bey­ond” ob­ject­ives that have the po­ten­tial to cap­tiv­ate Amer­ic­ans. And while this ar­gu­ment will get plenty of cam­era time when Cruz first gavels in the pan­el on Feb. 24, it’s prob­ably un­real­ist­ic to ex­pect the fire­works shows that have defined oth­er com­mit­tees’ hear­ings — or any im­me­di­ate changes to NASA’s plans.

“It’s not like he will con­trol the NASA budget,” said Louis Fried­man, a staffer on the sub­com­mit­tee in the late 1970s who went on to found the Plan­et­ary So­ci­ety with Carl Sagan — and has re­turned to testi­fy be­fore the pan­el. “The Sen­ate au­thor­iz­ing com­mit­tee won’t be a lead­ing play­er in this. I don’t ex­pect them to be the dom­in­ant force in dir­ect­ing NASA.”

In re­cent years, NASA reau­thor­iz­a­tions — which ap­prove gov­ern­ment pro­grams without ac­tu­ally al­loc­at­ing the money — have come without much con­tro­versy, let alone whole­sale changes. Earli­er this month, the House au­thor­ized the agency’s 2015 plans in a little-no­ticed voice vote. For Cruz to re­write NASA’s ob­ject­ives, he’d need the ap­prov­al of his sub­com­mit­tee, votes in the full Sen­ate and House, and Obama’s sig­na­ture. Even for someone used to fight­ing long le­gis­lat­ive odds, it’s likely Cruz’s role will be less about prin­cipled show­downs over must-pass le­gis­la­tion and more about shin­ing a spot­light on per­ceived pri­or­it­ies.

“I don’t ex­pect it to be con­ten­tious at all,” said James Muncy, a con­sult­ant who once served on the House’s coun­ter­part sub­com­mit­tee and has since test­i­fied be­fore the Sen­ate pan­el. “The Sen­ate is by over­all tra­di­tion and cer­tainly on this sub­com­mit­tee very bi­par­tis­an and very col­legi­al.” Cruz him­self said he ex­pects that spir­it to con­tin­ue, cit­ing a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Sen. Bill Nel­son, who pre­ceded him atop the pan­el.

And while he has made head­lines else­where in his short time in Con­gress, Cruz hasn’t ig­nored the is­sue that’s of out­sized im­port­ance in his home state. “He’s been at two space hear­ings so far, and he’s asked lots of ques­tions without look­ing down, without notes, that clearly got in­to the de­tails of the is­sues,” Muncy said.

Still, there will be plenty of room for dis­agree­ment — and plenty of chances to draw dis­tinc­tions with the White House. “In re­cent years, pro­gram after pro­gram for space ex­plor­a­tion has been can­celed,” Cruz said. “Mean­while, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been di­vert­ing more and more fund­ing to polit­ic­al agen­das, in part the par­tis­an com­mit­ment of the Demo­crat­ic Party to glob­al warm­ing.”

Last year, NASA launched five new mis­sions to study Earth’s cli­mate, and Earth sci­ence mis­sions cur­rently oc­cupy about 10 per­cent of NASA’s budget. Cruz be­lieves that has come at the ex­pense of “the core mis­sion of NASA, manned space ex­plor­a­tion.”

Cruz’s time lead­ing the pan­el is “not go­ing to be good for those in Earth sci­ence,” Fried­man said. “It’s not go­ing to be good for those who want NASA to fo­cus on cli­mate change. “¦ You could not ar­gue that plan­et­ary sci­ence be­longs in any oth­er agency, but you could ar­gue that Earth sci­ence be­longs in an­oth­er agency.”

Of course, Cruz is not the first to have this fight. For years, Re­pub­lic­ans have com­plained that NASA’s mis­sions have spent too much time star­ing back at their point of ori­gin and not enough ex­plor­ing the rest of the uni­verse. Crit­ics counter that NASA is bet­ter-po­si­tioned than any agency to study Earth’s cli­mate and at­mo­sphere, and they ar­gue such mis­sions don’t come at the ex­pense of plan­et­ary sci­ence — Earth is, after all, a plan­et.

If Cruz really does want to talk about chan­ging NASA’s pri­or­it­ies, ex­perts cau­tion that ar­gu­ment might end up clash­ing with his an­ti­s­pend­ing ideo­logy; manned mis­sions and deep space ex­plor­a­tion cost far more than Earth sci­ence. “I would wel­come more spend­ing on hu­man space­flight,” said Leroy Chiao, a former as­tro­naut who spoke be­fore the pan­el last year. “[But] if you’ve got these gran­di­ose dreams, you’ve got to ad­equately fund them.”

Cruz is op­tim­ist­ic that Amer­ica’s bur­geon­ing com­mer­cial space in­dustry can help close fund­ing short­falls. Already, com­pan­ies such as SpaceX and Or­bit­al Sci­ences are con­tract­ing with NASA to rock­et sup­plies to the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, and both SpaceX and Boe­ing are work­ing to ferry as­tro­nauts to the sta­tion by 2017.

Such con­tracts can be cost-savers, and, from Cruz’s per­spect­ive, it can’t hurt that a good many com­mer­cial space pro­grams — XCOR Aerospace, Or­bit­al Out­fit­ters, Blue Ori­gin, SpaceX, Nan­oR­acks — op­er­ate in Texas. “There are tre­mend­ous op­por­tun­it­ies for com­mer­cial space,” Cruz said. “One of the very first fo­cuses of the sub­com­mit­tee will be on ex­pand­ing those op­por­tun­it­ies, ex­pand­ing how we can al­low the private sec­tor to cre­ate jobs, to cre­ate growth, and how we can ex­plore new fron­ti­ers in space.”

Those in the com­mer­cial space in­dustry be­lieve Cruz re­cog­nizes their po­ten­tial. “We’re see­ing a well-di­ver­si­fied com­mer­cial renais­sance in Texas. That’s something that philo­soph­ic­ally the sen­at­or feels good about,” said Nan­oR­acks co-founder Jef­frey Man­ber. His com­pany con­tracts with NASA to provide com­puter-lab space and small satel­lite launches from ISS.

Ad­ded Muncy: “I think Mr. Cruz is go­ing to be more open than his pre­de­cessors have been in find­ing in­nov­at­ive ways to work with the private sec­tor. He’s go­ing to try to find a way to make whatever money NASA has go fur­ther.”

Mean­while, Cruz will soon find him­self drawn in­to an­oth­er par­tis­an NASA fight. While most NASA fol­low­ers agree with the agency’s long-term dir­ect­ive to put as­tro­nauts on Mars, many dis­agree on the in­ter­me­di­ate plans that will pre­cede that mis­sion. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion scrapped a plan to re­turn to the moon, re­pla­cing it with a much cheap­er mis­sion to cap­ture and study an as­ter­oid — one that will provide a cru­cial test­ing ground for the long-dis­tance en­gines needed for the Mars mis­sion.

Many Re­pub­lic­ans, par­tic­u­larly in the House, be­lieve the moon land­ing was too im­port­ant to give up, say­ing it was an im­port­ant step to train as­tro­nauts to live on an ali­en sur­face. Cruz de­clined to weigh in on that de­bate, oth­er than to say it should be “sub­stan­tially in­formed by ex­pert sci­entif­ic opin­ion.” He ad­ded, “I don’t think we should have politi­cians from either party med­dling in the day-to-day op­er­a­tions of NASA.”

As that and oth­er de­bates come be­fore Cruz’s pan­el, space in­dustry con­sult­ants and lead­ers aren’t ex­actly bra­cing for the worst. “It will be an ex­cit­ing few years,” Chiao said. “I’m cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic that Sen­at­or Cruz will help re­in­vig­or­ate NASA.”

Fried­man said he didn’t an­ti­cip­ate sweep­ing changes with Cruz atop the sub­com­mit­tee. “The tra­di­tion of that sub­com­mit­tee has al­ways been to be a pos­it­ive play­er,” he said. “I don’t have any reas­on to be neg­at­ive or see that this is go­ing to put NASA in a bad dir­ec­tion.”

Even the sen­at­or him­self be­lieves he has found one ob­ject­ive on which all Amer­ic­ans can agree. “The one pri­or­ity the Amer­ic­an people could en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally get be­hind is send­ing all of us in Con­gress to space,” Cruz said, “par­tic­u­larly if we didn’t come back.”

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