Cruz's Mission for NASA: More Space, Less Earth

The new space subcommittee chairman thinks the Obama administration has the agency overly focused on climate change at the expense of exploring the cosmos.

Sen. Ted Cruz speaks to the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition convention on January 18, 2015 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (National Journal)

If Ted Cruz is NASA's Grim Reaper, he doesn't talk like it.

To hear the new chairman of the Senate's Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee talk about NASA is to hear none of the budget-slashing zeal that comes out when he talks about, say, the IRS. Instead, he talks at length about putting more Americans in space and sending them farther than ever before. He gushes about the agency that has "excited the spirits of every person in this country, every boy and girl."

NASA, Cruz says, needs saving. And if doing so provides him with another cudgel to batter the Obama administration, well, it's no surprise that he's eager to have that fight. And, yes, he has seen the headlines:

"Climate Change"“Denying Ted Cruz Will Oversee NASA." "Oh dear, they've put Ted Cruz in charge of NASA." "Ted Cruz's control of Senate science panel triggers anxiety among some."

The potential 2016 presidential contender laughs off such skepticism as typical partisan attacks, then quickly launches into one of his own. "I am deeply concerned that the Obama administration has undervalued space exploration, has diverted NASA from its core priorities," he says. "We need to get back to the central mission of NASA."

In Cruz's mind, President Obama has spent too much of the agency's resources studying the planet we already inhabit, rather than focusing its missions on the "infinity and beyond" objectives that have the potential to captivate Americans. And while this argument will get plenty of camera time when Cruz first gavels in the panel on Feb. 24, it's probably unrealistic to expect the fireworks shows that have defined other committees' hearings—or any immediate changes to NASA's plans.

"It's not like he will control the NASA budget," said Louis Friedman, a staffer on the subcommittee in the late 1970s who went on to found the Planetary Society with Carl Sagan—and has returned to testify before the panel. "The Senate authorizing committee won't be a leading player in this. I don't expect them to be the dominant force in directing NASA."

In recent years, NASA reauthorizations—which approve government programs without actually allocating the money—have come without much controversy, let alone wholesale changes. Earlier this month, the House authorized the agency's 2015 plans in a little-noticed voice vote. For Cruz to rewrite NASA's objectives, he'd need the approval of his subcommittee, votes in the full Senate and House, and Obama's signature. Even for someone used to fighting long legislative odds, it's likely Cruz's role will be less about principled showdowns over must-pass legislation and more about shining a spotlight on perceived priorities.

"I don't expect it to be contentious at all," said James Muncy, a consultant who once served on the House's counterpart subcommittee and has since testified before the Senate panel. "The Senate is by overall tradition and certainly on this subcommittee very bipartisan and very collegial." Cruz himself said he expects that spirit to continue, citing a good working relationship with Sen. Bill Nelson, who preceded him atop the panel.

And while he has made headlines elsewhere in his short time in Congress, Cruz hasn't ignored the issue that's of outsized importance in his home state. "He's been at two space hearings so far, and he's asked lots of questions without looking down, without notes, that clearly got into the details of the issues," Muncy said.

Still, there will be plenty of room for disagreement—and plenty of chances to draw distinctions with the White House. "In recent years, program after program for space exploration has been canceled," Cruz said. "Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been diverting more and more funding to political agendas, in part the partisan commitment of the Democratic Party to global warming."

Last year, NASA launched five new missions to study Earth's climate, and Earth science missions currently occupy about 10 percent of NASA's budget. Cruz believes that has come at the expense of "the core mission of NASA, manned space exploration."

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.

Many Republicans, particularly in the House, believe the moon landing was too important to give up, saying it was an important step to train astronauts to live on an alien surface. Cruz declined to weigh in on that debate, other than to say it should be "substantially informed by expert scientific opinion." He added, "I don't think we should have politicians from either party meddling in the day-to-day operations of NASA."

As that and other debates come before Cruz's panel, space industry consultants and leaders aren't exactly bracing for the worst. "It will be an exciting few years," Chiao said. "I'm cautiously optimistic that Senator Cruz will help reinvigorate NASA."

Friedman said he didn't anticipate sweeping changes with Cruz atop the subcommittee. "The tradition of that subcommittee has always been to be a positive player," he said. "I don't have any reason to be negative or see that this is going to put NASA in a bad direction."

Even the senator himself believes he has found one objective on which all Americans can agree. "The one priority the American people could enthusiastically get behind is sending all of us in Congress to space," Cruz said, "particularly if we didn't come back."