We can’t all be winners in Trump’s America.
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for NASA makes clear exactly who is likely to win and who to lose favor at the space agency in the coming years of his administration.
Specifically, NASA’s Earth scientists and, yes, even kids interested in space will probably be the losers if Congress approves this version of the budget.
The NASA budget request calls for the cancellation of the space agency’s office of education, a relatively small piece of the agency devoted to getting kids and underrepresented groups involved in space science research and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). In recent years, the U.S. has lagged behind many other nations in STEM education.
If enacted, the budget would also sideline five Earth science missions designed to beam down vital information about our planet back to waiting scientists at home. In total, these missions would cost about $171 million, which is a pittance when compared to the agency’s overall budget request of $19.1 billion.
While it’s true that NASA will still have 18 functioning Earth science missions under this budget, the future of the agency’s homeward-looking missions will be less certain without spacecraft like the Radiation Budget Instrument — which would have measured the Earth’s reflected sunlight, a key piece of data that serves as the backbone for many climate studies.
Earth science is one of NASA’s core missions since its first years as a government agency.
These specific cuts probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise from a president who famously said that he believes climate change is a hoax. But perhaps more surprising is the Trump administration’s plan to slash $78 million from NASA’s $115 million office of education, effectively ending the decades-old piece of the agency.
NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot doesn’t seem to think that the end of the education office should be cause for serious concern.
“While this budget no longer supports the formal Office of Education, NASA will continue to inspire the next generation through its missions and the many ways that our work excites and encourages discovery by learners and educators,” Lightfoot said during a speech Tuesday.
“We are as committed to inspiring the next generation as ever. We’re going to engage the public in the compelling story of exploration by the successful and safe execution of our missions, which is where our focus has to be.”
The details of just how NASA is planning to educate the public on space science without a central office of education aren’t exactly clear, however.
It also takes more than inspiration to get kids interested in science. It takes access.
The office does more than put out educational fact sheets. It helps provide scholarship funding for young people of color and works to introduce space science and STEM to communities that may not have access to that kind of material.
“A skinny black kid from a small southern town, who never imagined working in the space industry, was given an opportunity to do so because of NASA Education,” former astronaut and former NASA associate administrator for education Leland Melvin, said in a statement.
“The experiences, activities, and inspiration that NASA Education provides to students, teachers and the community can’t be duplicated by any other organization. No other federal agency works so closely with the scientists and engineers who make it possible for us all to explore and discover space — this is STEM in action.”
Quite a few lawmakers are also unhappy about the cuts to the office of education.
Thirty-two senators asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to insist upon funding the office into the next fiscal year.
“Importantly, approximately $25 million in NASA Office of Education funds provide direct financial assistance to thousands of students in all 50 states,” the letter sent to the committee reads.
“In addition to direct aid, the Office of Education also invests in far-reaching enrichment activities that expose students to STEM fields. In 2015, nearly 633,000 elementary and secondary school students and 50,000 educators engaged in NASA-supported STEM education activities.”
Even though most of NASA’s other programs make it out of the budget relatively unscathed, especially when compared to other science-focused agencies, the cuts to education and Earth science could have wide-reaching effects for generations to come.