Trump Wants to Axe NASA Earth Science. That's a Bad Idea.

The greatest gift of the Space Age is a wider perspective on our own planet.

NASA Johnson Space Center

There’s good reason to believe that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will be eyeing NASA for budget cuts to pay for his outrageously expensive border wall and deportation promises, and first to go will surely be the administration’s Earth science programs.

It’s still unclear who will lead NASA under Trump, but an informal space policy presented on his behalf by former Congressman Robert Walker included plans to “redirect NASA budgets towards deep space achievements rather than Earth-centric climate change spending.”

NASA’s Earth science programs have fared well under President Barack Obama’s administration. Earth science spending has blossomed 50 percent since 2008, even as space science spending has stayed flat. But Republicans have long criticized the move, even though NASA’s policy shift towards looking back at Earth began under former Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

If it seems strange that a space agency would study the home planet, consider this: NASA gave humanity The Blue Marble. A wider perspective on ourselves has been one the Space Age’s greatest gifts. Today, dozens of satellites orbit our planet in order to observe it from above, rather than looking out into the great beyond. The data produced by NASA about our Earth from its satellites and instruments is used worldwide. The administration delivered 1.42 billion data sets to users in 2015, up from just eight million in 2000.

The power of that information is formidable. Earlier this month a group of scientists from the Finnish Meteorological Institute used data from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 to map where the planet’s dioxide emissions are actually coming from. This is harder to do than you might expect, because CO2 in the atmosphere fluctuates seasonally, and the signal must be pulled from the noise. But it’s a big deal, since ground-based monitoring can’t give the whole picture, and self-reporting by governments is often incomplete. This method is a powerful tool in holding the world to its promises to fight climate change under the Paris Agreement that came into force November 4.

Trump’s informal space policy did note that Earth-facing missions could be redirected to NOAA, but expect deep cuts on anything explicitly or even implicitly related to climate change. Trump has made it clear that he hopes that pretending climate change isn’t real will reinvigorate America’s fossil fuel industries, despite good evidence that it won’t.

Climate change is increasingly a bipartisan issue. High-ranking former leaders of the U.S. military have urged Trump to take it seriously as a threat to national security. Hundreds of businesses have promised to do their part to uphold the Paris Agreement, even if Trump makes good on his promise to bow out. Committed Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger has devoted his post-governor years to the cause, and was in Marrakech, Morocco this week to speak at the U.N.’s annual climate change conference.

Trump, though, seems content to surround himself with ideologically driven deniers of climate change, who seek to drain any remaining value in the fossil fuels left in the Earth and leave the mess for future generations to clean up. Let’s hope it never gets so bad that life on Mars starts looking like an attractive option.

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