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Time to Get Real About NASA
Heat and humidity build starting tomorrow

Andrew Freedman @ 1:30 AM

The Bush administration's Earth science spending cuts are becoming a point of contention as Congress proceeds with the laborious annual ritual of passing appropriations bills to fund the federal government.

It's clear that the debate over NASA's spending priorities is a clash between dreamers and realists -- a philosophical fault line similar to competing schools of foreign policy.

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The realists on NASA spending are dismayed at recent cuts in Earth science funding, because they view these programs as NASA functions that are essential for understanding life on this planet. They seek to restore the balance between NASA's more adventurous and sexy space science programs and its Earth science activities.

NASA realists include Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that is responsible for setting NASA's annual appropriation. NASA maintains Earth science-related facilities in Maryland.

"At a time when we are facing possibly significant threats to our planet Earth -- like global warming and severe weather -- we need sound science to inform our policy decisions," she told Greenwire [subscription required]. "We need NASA to provide that science."

Not surprisingly, many scientists are in the realist camp. Richard Anthes, who leads the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, told Greenwire: "We're looking at spending millions of dollars to mitigate climate change. If we don't know if those actions are doing any good or not, the money could be completely wasted. We need to be able to monitor as we move forward."

Yet for the dreamers (who in contemporary foreign policy terms are most closely related to the neoconservatives), NASA's Earth science work is boring compared to the agency's historical record of pioneering human spaceflight and landing on the moon. They are eager to restore the agency to its heyday of 1969, when man first landed on the moon, or more recently to the glory days of the space shuttle.

Dreamers bemoan the recent state of the agency in which the space shuttle program is devoted to servicing and repairing the International Space Station, which itself is widely considered a boondoggle.

The dreamers perceive that NASA has lost its swagger, its mojo if you will, and seek to fund the president's Moon and Mars exploration efforts even if it comes at the expense of more practical Earth science research.

Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center, summarized the dreamer view when he told Greenwire: "I don't think NASA should be doing any Earth observation. That should be done by NOAA."

"We're a nation of pioneers," he continued. "And space exploration has clearly shown benefits over the years, from Velcro to CT scanning machines to MRIs to pacemakers."

Dreamers such as Weldon are right in many respects, but they need a dose of reality. NASA has indeed lost its luster, and the human spaceflight program is limping along without inspiration and devoid of public enthusiasm. But while Weldon and some other dreamers may wish to magically shift NASA's Earth science programs to NOAA -- itself chronically underfunded -- it's NASA that has had a closer linkage between space-based systems and Earth science applications. The two have always worked in tandem at NASA, with considerable crossover in practical applications with NOAA.

A key question for Weldon and the other dreamers is whether they would support significant increases to NOAA's budget if NASA's Earth science programs were transferred. The recent record suggests the answer is no.

Under the Bush administration and the Republican Congress that ended this year, Congress failed to realize the stupidity of tasking NASA to take on a $12 billion program -- the price tag for going back to the Moon and to Mars -- along with its traditional Earth science functions, all the while giving it a flat budget year after year.

Dreamers don't make the best policymakers if they're stuck living in a dreamworld rather than dealing with reality on fiscal policy. They need to learn that we can't dream big and fund small, thereby ignoring the one planet that we (currently) call home.

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