With his fancy new chairmanship, Sen. Ted Cruz is basically in charge of NASA. Shockingly enough, that might actually be a good thing for the Johnson Space Center.
We admit we had some reservations when we learned that Cruz had become chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, the senatorial crew that oversees NASA. After all, his views on things like climate change and other scientific-type stuff are most kindly described as what we've come to expect from the hard-right faithful of the GOP. (He probably doesn't believe that humans used to keep dinosaurs as pets, but we aren't 100 percent sure on that one.) Initially it was easy to look at his chairmanship as the end of any hope of real scientific work at NASA for the foreseeable future.
However, now that Cruz -- someone who belongs in the camp that believes global warming is, in SNL-parodying-Sarah-Palin parlance, just "God hugging us a little bit closer" -- has been charged with figuring out what NASA's priorities will be in coming years, we can see a silver lining for Houston's Johnson Space Center. So far Cruz has done exactly what everyone expected him to do, calling for an end to climate change studies currently in vogue at NASA in favor of space exploration. But the thing is, such a shift in NASA policy could be exactly what's needed to revitalize JSC.
For decades JSC was one of the top dogs at NASA. After all, when we were sending astronauts into outer space and to the moon, the shuttles took off at Cape Canaveral but the actual show was run from the JSC in Houston. But all of that changed when President Obama came to office.
Obama announced that NASA would be focusing on climate change and earth science. In other words, his NASA was going to be doing some heavy planetary navel-gazing that would leave the JSC out in the bureaucratic cold. In 2010, Obama cancelled Constellation, President George W. Bush's moon mission. Then in 2011, he cancelled the space shuttle program. This left JSC without any way to send astronauts into outer space from U.S. soil (commercial companies are working on commercial vehicles, but NASA astronauts have been hitching $76 million rides on Russian spacecraft for the past few years). That hit JSC particularly hard since manned spaceflight has been its focus from the start.
And the thing is, there are some indications that these moves -- along with the decision not to give Houston a real shuttle once the spacecrafts were retired -- may have been politically motivated. For one thing, Texas hasn't exactly been Obama-friendly, so the President had little to gain from giving JSC anything. (Some say this is why Houston is stuck displaying a model space shuttle while New York City has a real one.)
But presidential politics hasn't been the only handicap for JSC in recent years. Johnson Space Center -- like every other space center in the country -- depends on the elected representatives and senators from the state to ensure that programs and funding are steered its way. In fact, JSC was only established in Houston because then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson got the legislation through Congress in 1958. From then on, there was usually a Texas senator who acted as the JSC champion, looking out for its interests. For years Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison did the job, but JSC was pretty much left to fend for itself after Cruz won her seat in 2012.
However, now Cruz, as chairman of the committee, is taking an interest in this whole space thing. Cruz has made it clear from the start that he -- as befits a Tea Partier of the first order -- has no interest in all that global warming stuff Obama has had NASA looking into. When news of his chairmanship broke, Cruz stated in a release that he was intent on seeing NASA head back into space exploration:
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"We must refocus our investment on the hard sciences, on getting men and women into space, on exploring low-Earth orbit and beyond, and not on political distractions that are extraneous to NASA's mandate. I am excited to raise these issues in our subcommittee and look forward to producing legislation that confirms our shared commitment to this vital mission."
Since then, Cruz has continued to focus on thwacking NASA back toward a mission of manned space flight. He reiterated this in an op-ed published Monday in the Houston Chronicle. The article was supposedly about NASA as a whole, but it was aimed at the JSC. The op-ed mentioned the Space Launch System and Orion -- two projects that the JSC still has stakes in -- before going on to talk directly about the JSC and the importance of ensuring the continued existence of a U.S. manned space flight program :
"There is more that can be done to create long-term predictability for the U.S. commercial space industry and NASA, and, importantly, the best way to ensure that Johnson Space Center remains the international center of excellence for space exploration is to ensure that America has a strong and robust space exploration program.
There is no limit to human imagination or for the desire for exploration; every one of us has looked up at the night sky and wondered what lies out there. America has a long history of leading the way in space exploration and we must reclaim that leadership."
While his chairmanship doesn't bode well for those who were hoping to see NASA continue to focus on climate change, the Cruz-ian agenda could line up perfectly with the needs of JSC. Stranger still, Cruz's plan to change NASA's focus could actually make NASA's claims plausible that we will be sending astronauts to Mars in the coming decades. It's weird, but it's possible.