Sunday, December 18, 2016

NASA and Earth science

Newt Gingrich has spoken aggressively about the moral imperative of space colonization

I recently had a good Facebook discussion about the possibility of NASA scrapping its Earth science research under Trump. I take a somewhat contrarian attitude on this and feel genuinely conflicted about whether or not it's a good idea. California Governor Jerry Brown's¹ recent pledge to maintain climate research continuity in the face of federal cuts reminded me of the exchange, and I want to post my thoughts here. Below are edited excerpts of my comments:

I'm still genuinely uncertain about whether space exploration is more important than climate change. They are obviously both super-duper important. In my mind, the desirability of Trump's plan ultimately boils down to a comparison of the magnitudes of various good and bad aspects, as opposed to a discrete conceptual/logical argument. Complicated!

Most obviously, if the cost savings from scrapping Earth science research aren't ploughed into space-focused projects, it's probably an awful outcome. NASA deserves far more total funding. For argument's sake, my list below mostly assumes a constant level of funding--changes in composition likely pale in comparison to changes in absolute size.

That said, if NASA were to scrap Earth science I'd expect to see all of the following effects in various degrees:

  • Government Earth science research using space data collection gets gutted
  • Climate change people in NASA and elsewhere get demoralized
  • NASA loses relevance/status by not being a major player in climate change science

  • More funding/emphasis on space exploration
  • NASA becomes more bureaucratically effective by eliminating a conflicting focus (Make NASA great again?)
  • NASA increases relevance/status by eliminating a really partisan chunk, maybe inducing Republicans to support a beneficial proxy war of space achievement with China
  • Maaaaybe this galvanizes environmentalists and results in some beneficial activism/politics
  • And maaaybe it causes other environmentalist/science groups to compensate and invest in space capacity (public or private) & reconceptualize space as a useful method (instead of an "issue" or "policy area"). Example: Bill McKibben pushes for a satellite network.
The last point is perhaps the most compelling. By housing all government space stuff within NASA, you essentially pigeonhole space as "that thing NASA does". But a true proactive and forward-thinking attitude understands that space is merely a natural evolution of goal-seeking entities everywhere; space has great utility. 

Various US military institutions already have a large foothold in space: they justify this on the basis of an existing mandate. There is no reason why NOAA or EPA can't follow the same path and develop their own space expertise. By refocusing NASA on outward-looking space topics, perhaps you'll force a clarification of the value of inward-looking space topics. This idea no doubt makes some Earth scientists nervous. But I am optimistic that the value of space technology is clear enough as to assure its ongoing funding.

¹ I am on record that Jerry Brown is The Best. Evidence here, here, here, here

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