Cruz's time leading the panel is "not going to be good for those in Earth science," Friedman said. "It's not going to be good for those who want NASA to focus on climate change. "¦ You could not argue that planetary science belongs in any other agency, but you could argue that Earth science belongs in another agency."
Of course, Cruz is not the first to have this fight. For years, Republicans have complained that NASA's missions have spent too much time staring back at their point of origin and not enough exploring the rest of the universe. Critics counter that NASA is better-positioned than any agency to study Earth's climate and atmosphere, and they argue such missions don't come at the expense of planetary science—Earth is, after all, a planet.
If Cruz really does want to talk about changing NASA's priorities, experts caution that argument might end up clashing with his antispending ideology; manned missions and deep space exploration cost far more than Earth science. "I would welcome more spending on human spaceflight," said Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut who spoke before the panel last year. "[But] if you've got these grandiose dreams, you've got to adequately fund them."
Cruz is optimistic that America's burgeoning commercial space industry can help close funding shortfalls. Already, companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are contracting with NASA to rocket supplies to the International Space Station, and both SpaceX and Boeing are working to ferry astronauts to the station by 2017.
Such contracts can be cost-savers, and, from Cruz's perspective, it can't hurt that a good many commercial space programs—XCOR Aerospace, Orbital Outfitters, Blue Origin, SpaceX, NanoRacks—operate in Texas. "There are tremendous opportunities for commercial space," Cruz said. "One of the very first focuses of the subcommittee will be on expanding those opportunities, expanding how we can allow the private sector to create jobs, to create growth, and how we can explore new frontiers in space."
Those in the commercial space industry believe Cruz recognizes their potential. "We're seeing a well-diversified commercial renaissance in Texas. That's something that philosophically the senator feels good about," said NanoRacks co-founder Jeffrey Manber. His company contracts with NASA to provide computer-lab space and small satellite launches from ISS.
Added Muncy: "I think Mr. Cruz is going to be more open than his predecessors have been in finding innovative ways to work with the private sector. He's going to try to find a way to make whatever money NASA has go further."
Meanwhile, Cruz will soon find himself drawn into another partisan NASA fight. While most NASA followers agree with the agency's long-term directive to put astronauts on Mars, many disagree on the intermediate plans that will precede that mission. The Obama administration scrapped a plan to return to the moon, replacing it with a much cheaper mission to capture and study an asteroid—one that will provide a crucial testing ground for the long-distance engines needed for the Mars mission.