House GOP wants to explore space, Democrats want to stare at the Earth

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee voted for a significant change in NASA's priorities.  Instead of the nearly 2 billion dollars requested by President Obama for "earth science" (read: global warming studies), the Republican House cut funding down to $1.68 billion, a merciful change in the right direction and enough to incur the ire of both the administration and Democratic critics like Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who blasted the bill.  (Mikulski claimed without evidence that global warming is damaging Maryland's Chesapeake Bay).

The House Committee also helpfully bumped up funding for planetary exploration at the expense of "climate change" studies.  With a total NASA budget of $18.5 billion, NASA has been ordered to spend $4.76 billion next year on exploring the planets, a huge increase from the current level of $4.36 billion.  What's special about this increase is that the Committee's budget is ordering NASA to go to Europa by 2022.

Europa is a moon of Jupiter that's covered in ice but has a massive, liquid-water ocean underneath its frozen surface, kept warm by radiation from the moon's inner core.  When betting on extraterrestrial life in our own solar system, Europa is near the top of the hand, because on Earth, wherever you find liquid water, you find life.  In theory, a mission to Europa could detect signatures of subsurface life and pave the way for a future lander that could melt through the surface layer and "swim" underneath in the ocean.  The good news is that the Committee has directed NASA to launch its Europa Clipper mission within seven years with the new SLS launch system.

Congress has also prescribed a separate "Ocean Worlds Exploration Program" to "discover life" in the moons of Saturn – namely, Titan and Enceladus.  Titan has a methane atmosphere and lakes, which might be conducive to life of some kind, and Enceladus has water vapor plumes that shoot out from the moon's poles from a Europa-like subsurface ocean.  Basically, this new initiative would allow NASA to plan out future missions to the Saturnian system but would not yet authorize a new mission per se.

The search for extra-solar planets also gets a needed boost next year, with new funding for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) to directly photograph exoplanets circling other stars.  The telescope could detect signatures in these planets' atmospheres that might mean that life is present on their surfaces.

This bolder direction toward exploration and away from gazing at the Earth itself from orbit caught some surprising flack from the NASA administrator himself, Charles Bolden, who exclaimed that "the House proposal would seriously reduce our Earth science program and threaten to set back generations [sic] worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate. … [T]his would affect our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events."  How anyone could ever predict an earthquake, let alone from near-Earth orbit, was left unsaid.

Ultimately, the Democratic Party's current obsession with "climate change" stems from its lack of imagination, lack of adventure, and lack of vision.  In 1962, JFK gave a stirring address in which he spoke of mankind's destiny in space: "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because it is easy, but because it is hard."  To this administration and its allies in Congress, the call seems to be closer to "we choose to stare at the Earth from orbit and to wish away the pause in global warming, not because it is hard, but because it is easy."

Christopher S. Carson, a lawyer, is formerly with the American Enterprise Institute.

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