WHITTINGTON: America’s Mission To Explore Jupiter’s Moon Europa Is Safe — For Now

Mark Whittington Contributor
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When Lizzie Fletcher, then a corporate lawyer, defeated Republican Rep. John Culberson for his Texas congressional seat in November, a chill wind blew through the planetary science community. The Democrat defeated Culberson, in part, by attacking his support for NASA missions to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The Houston Chronicle endorsed Fletcher partly over that issue, and a Michael Bloomberg PAC ran a commercial mercilessly mocking Culberson for championing a pair of missions that would search for life on the ice-shrouded moon.

Fortunately, recent reports indicate both the Europa Clipper and the Europa Lander are safe for now. The latest NASA spending bill funded the Europa Clipper, now scheduled to launch in 2023, for $280 million. It funded the Europa Lander, due to depart Earth in 2025, for $195 million. Wherever Culberson is spending his forced retirement, he at least has the satisfaction that the exploration of Europa, which may contain life in a warm-water ocean thought to reside under its icy surface, will continue.

Fletcher, for her part, is eschewing direct influence over NASA programs and is heading the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, dabbling in climate-change politics.

Climate change is a dangerous issue for a member of Congress who represents a district dependent on the oil and gas industry for jobs and income. The disastrous Green New Deal has tainted climate change with the stench of extremism. Fletcher has not offered her support for the GND, but at some point she will have to explain her views about banning private cars, air travel, and, especially pertinent for a Texas representative, cattle.

Fears expressed by the Planetary Society and others that Fletcher’s victory presaged a new, anti-science backlash against space exploration appear to have been unfounded, at least for now. The $21.5 billion-dollar NASA budget for the current fiscal year represents a vote of confidence in NASA and its plans to return to the moon and, “do the other things” like the Europa Clipper and Europa Lander.

Still, the 2018 midterm election has left a bad taste in many mouths. As the Planetary Society described it, the Bloomberg ad dredged up “dismissive tropes used to caricature space science and exploration advocates: cartoonish aliens, Jetsons-style futurism, and false dichotomies of space versus ‘real’ issues” and has been described accurately as “anti-science” was particularly nasty.

The ad was not authorized by Fletcher and was not run by her campaign. But the congresswoman never repudiated it or apologized for it. The ad helped her to win, and that seems to be all that was important.

Fletcher, as she quietly represents her district in Texas, must start thinking about reelection next year. She does not have the sort of notoriety held by Ocasio-Cortez or Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. Nevertheless, Fletcher is on the list of Democrats who Republicans would like to send packing. Climate change is not likely to be a winning issue for her; Ocasio-Cortez has made certain of that. Space exploration advocates must regard her like science nerds do the middle school mean girl who dumped on them for their interest in STEM and are likely anxious for a little payback.

It would be an irony of Shakespearean dimensions if Lizzie Fletcher were to become a one-term wonder partly at least because of an issue that propelled her to Washington to begin with. Space is rarely a decisive topic of contention in any political contest. But Fletcher proved that it occasionally happens. It could happen again in 2020.

Fletcher may realize the danger she faces. When the Crewed Dragon lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center, the “Down to Earth” member of Congress offered the following message on Twitter: “Congratulations to @NASA and @SpaceX on this morning’s amazing feat!”

Change of heart, consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds, or cynical political ploy? Let the reader be the judge.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner. 

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.