Ted Cruz and Charles Bolden would probably agree that the core of the Earth is a mass of molten metal as hot as the sun. But as for the core of NASA's mission, the senator from Texas and the former astronaut split ways.
Since taking the chairmanship of the Senate Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee this year, Cruz has been pushing the agency to adopt a "more space, less Earth" strategy. The Republican lawmaker argues that the Obama administration is wrongfully neglecting the country's space exploration operations—like potential missions to Mars and beyond—in favor of global-warming research. And he wants to know if Bolden, NASA's administrator, thinks so, too.
"I'd like to start by asking a general question," said Cruz on Thursday during a subcommittee hearing on the president's $18.5 billion budget request for NASA for fiscal 2016, which allocates considerable funding for Earth- and ocean-science projects. "In your judgment, what is the core mission of NASA?"
Bolden said he'd been contemplating that mission over the past few days, and had read over the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which created the agency. "Our core mission from the very beginning has been to investigate, explore space and the Earth environment, and to help us make this place a better place," he said, adding that the study of aeronautics is important as well.
Cruz didn't seem pleased with the "Earth environment" part of Bolden's answer. "Almost any American would agree that the core function of NASA is to explore space," he said. "That's what inspires little boys and little girls across this country ... and you know that I am concerned that NASA in the current environment has lost its full focus on that core mission."
Cruz then pointed to a chart behind him titled "Focus Inward or Focus Outward? Refocusing NASA's Core Priorities" that compared NASA's budget in 2009 with the current request. He said that since 2009, funding for Earth sciences has seen a 41 percent increase, while funding for exploration and space operations, what Cruz "would consider the core function of NASA," has seen a 7.6 percent decrease.
"In my judgment, this does not represent a fair or appropriate allocation of resources, that it is shifting resources away from the core functions of NASA to other functions," Cruz said. "Do you share that assessment?"
Bolden, who decides how to allocate NASA's annual budget, did not. That dip in space exploration funding? That was kind of the whole point. "Mr. Chairman, I am very interested in your chart," he said. "I will say one thing—it is interesting to note that there is a decrease in exploration and human spaceflight when, in fact, that was somewhat intentional because we were trying to get the cost of exploration down as we reach farther out into the solar system."
Bolden said the now-defunct space shuttles cost NASA $2 billion a year to maintain whether they flew or not. Today, NASA has a $6.6 billion contract with private companies Boeing and SpaceX that will provide for 16 human spaceflights over a span of three to four years.
"So I think the decrease is actually a little bit of what we're trying to do to get the cost of flying humans into space down," he told Cruz. "That's what's driving the market, is reducing launch costs."
More money for Earth-science research is a good thing, he said. "The fact that Earth-science has increased—I'm proud to say that it has enabled us to understand our planet far better than we ever did before," Bolden said.
The NASA chief distanced himself from Cruz's assessment of spending changes within the agency.
'You asked me about your chart. There's a lot of chartsmanship," Bolden said, chuckling. "I'm not sure what you include in 'exploration,' for example. So, by my statement, I was not acknowledging that I agree with the numbers on the chart. I don't want everyone to say I accept the numbers on the chart."
The exchange offered a glimpse of NASA under a potential Cruz presidency. Climate-change researchers let out an audible groan when Cruz, who is expected to run in 2016, took the helm of the Senate subcommittee overseeing the federal agency in January. Cruz's views—especially his belief that global warming doesn't exist—are at odds with NASA's extensive climate-science programs, which study solar activity, sea level rise, and oceanic temperatures, to name a few. On Thursday, Bolden appeared to hope the senator's opinions wouldn't get in the way of how NASA spends its money.
"We can't go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center goes underwater and we don't know it—and that's understanding our environment," Bolden said, alluding to the risk that climate change poses to the low-elevation state of Florida. "It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth environment because this is the only place that we have to live."