Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has a new role in the Republican-controlled Senate, and it’s not about being obstructionist.
Cruz is now the chairman of a key subcommittee that oversees NASA and science and he’s already shaking things up, calling for the space agency to re-focus on exploration instead of other research.
For Cruz, who is considering a presidential run in 2016, it’s a platform to promote ideas on several fronts, from expanding space opportunities that benefit Houston-based NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center to questioning the science behind climate change.
“In 1962, President John F. Kennedy laid down a marker for space exploration that inspired a generation of Americans to reach for the stars, recognizing that the race to the heavens was nothing less than a crucial front in the battle between freedom and tyranny,” Cruz said in a statement this week.
“More than 50 years later, we have lost sight of that clarion call.”
Cruz’s emphasis on space comes just as NASA on Friday, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, announced that 2014 was the warmest year on record. The earth’s temperature has been recorded since 1880.
According to NASA, which monitors the Earth from its many satellites and instruments, the planet’s average surface temperature has increased by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, due “to the increase in carbon dioxide and other human emissions into the planet’s atmosphere.”
But Cruz has been a skeptic about climate change. In a CNN interview last year he said, “You always have to be worried about something that is considered a so-called scientific theory that fits every scenario. Climate change, as they have defined it, can never be disproved, because whether it gets hotter or whether it gets colder, whatever happens, they'll say, well, it's changing, so it proves our theory."
His chairmanship of the subcommittee has set off alarm bells among environmental groups.
“We have a climate denier who is in charge of a committee that has a heavy science mandate,” said Melinda Pierce, legislative director of the Sierra Club. “I fear for NASA’s portfolio of climate science research.”
Keith Gaby, communications director on climate issues for the Environmental Defense Fund said of Cruz’s new position, “It’s a concern. He’s been playing to the most extreme elements of his party.”
“The good news is that there’s a lot of good space and science that originates in Texas,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There are real home state interests here and he’ll hopefully recognize these.”
Cruz, elected in 2012 in his first bid for elective office, became a divisive figure almost immediately and spearheaded the drive that led to the partial federal government shutdown in 2013. In December he disrupted the Senate with demands for a vote on the president’s immigration action shielding nearly 5 million undocumented people from deportation.
The subcommittee even has a new name, now the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on Space and Science and Competitiveness. Republicans added “competitiveness” to the old title.
Cruz thinks that American competitiveness in space is something the country needs to reclaim, especially since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011 left NASA with few options in space and reliant on Russian rockets to get to the International Space Station.
“Russia’s status as the current gatekeeper of the International Space Station could threaten our capability to explore and learn, stunting our capacity to reach new heights and share innovations with free people everywhere,” said Cruz this week. “The United States should work alongside our international partners, but not be dependent on them. We should once again lead the way for the world in space exploration.”
There is an emerging private space industry, as well, including entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX company which is planning a spaceport in Texas.
Space enthusiasts did not immediately react to Cruz’s emphasis on exploration. The nonprofit space advocacy group the Space Foundation declined a McClatchy request for comment.
Keith Cowing, editor of NASA Watch, a blog that monitors agency activities and offers commentary, said there had been a very strong reaction in the space community to Cruz’s new position.
"It's half-grounded in truth and half in hysteria," said Cowing, an astrobiologist and former NASA employee.
Cruz, meanwhile, is bullish about NASA concentrating on its core mission.
“We must refocus our investment on the hard sciences, on getting men and women into space, on exploring low-Earth orbit and beyond,” he said, “and not on political distractions that are extraneous to NASA’s mandate.”