As a kid growing up in Houston, John Culberson wanted to be an astronaut. But he had "flat feet, bad eyes, and I was no math whiz,” as he puts it, and so he went into politics instead.
Now, as a conservative Republican congressman and the chair of the House subcommittee responsible for funding NASA, Culberson is getting a second chance to plot the course of the nation’s space policy. And his fascination with finding life in space could reshape NASA's priorities.
Culberson has dramatically increased funding for NASA’s mission to Europa, the Jupiter moon that experts believe could support extraterrestrial life. Last week, he passed a budget through the House that funded $140 million for the plan, more than four times what President Obama requested, while cutting funding for other NASA projects, such as satellites studying climate change.
A Tea Partier who seems to have never publicly said a positive word about Obama and who has a deep passion for state’s rights, Culberson is just as excited about planetary physics as the 10th Amendment.
“God’s genius is evident in the perfection of his creation all around us,” Culberson told Fusion this week. “We see it in the solar system, we see it in carbonaceous meteorites, in the spectrographic analysis of asteroids, in the spectrographic analysis of nebulae. It’s just self-evident.”
“I’m absolutely confident that the good Lord has seeded life throughout the universe,” Culberson said. And now, he wants to find that life.
‘One of humanity’s greatest questions’
Europa, which was first discovered by Galileo in 1610, is covered by a global ocean 100 kilometers deep and a thick layer of ice on top of that. It contains two to three times the volume of all the liquid water on Earth—water that is of similar chemical composition to the Earth’s oceans.
Many scientists believe that Europa is our best shot for finding life off Earth in the (relatively) near future. A mission to the far-off moon was called the second most important large space mission in a 2013 survey of the nation’s top planetary scientists, after a Mars explorer. Europa “offers one of the most promising extraterrestrial habitable environments in our solar system,” the report reads.
"I think we're going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade," Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, told the Houston Chronicle last month.
Unlike explorations of Mars, which focus on finding microbial fossils and other hints of past life, the Europa mission would search for “extant life, life that is alive today, potentially living and swimming in that deep ocean below Europa’s ice shell,” Kevin Hand, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who’s been working on the Europa project for the past eight years, told Fusion.
“I would be happy with the discovery even of a single microbe within Europa’s ocean. That would be transformative in terms of our understanding of the science of biology,” Hand said. “But some of my work indicates that the chemicals of Europa’s ocean might be able to support more complex forms of life, so we cannot rule out more complex organisms.”
The mission as it currently stands would send a spacecraft to orbit Jupiter and fly by Europa 45 times, collecting data. It’s scheduled to launch between 2022 and 2024 and take about three to five years to reach its destination. (The European Space Agency is also working on a spaceship to Europa, which is also scheduled to launch in 2022.)
NASA’s flyby would lay the groundwork for a future mission that would include a probe that could land, melt through the planet’s ice, and submerse in the ocean. That would likely let us know for sure whether any lifeforms exist there.
The first study for the Europa mission was conducted in the late 1990s, and since then, there have been a number of incarnations of the project: NASA cancelled an earlier version in 2002 for budgetary reasons, a decision Culberson said was wrong.
"It's a very difficult mission by comparison to just about any destination in the solar system," William Moore, a Hampton University professor in residence at the National Institute of Aerospace, told Fusion. "It's always a compromise between what we want to do and what we can afford to do."
“This has been a sort of sisyphean path,” Hand said. Now that the mission is proceeding, he said, “we’re very excited—it’s been the focus of my life… and it will help us answer one of humanity’s greatest questions.”
Without Culberson’s efforts, the Europa mission would not have been funded at the level it has been, Hand said. Using his power as chair of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations, Culberson wrote statutes forcing NASA to study and fund the mission, investing millions of dollars. The budget he wrote, which passed the full House last week (it still needs to go through the Senate), awarded Europa $140 million during the next fiscal year, far exceeding the $30 million Obama proposed.
Some say Culberson's obsession with Europa and finding extraterrestrial life is misguided. His budget also cut funding for earth sciences by more than $250 million compared to Obama's request, a change that would "threaten to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate," NASA chief administrator Charles Bolden wrote in a blog post. The budget directs "an impractical level of funding toward the Jupiter Europa mission," Shaun Donovan, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a letter.
But Culberson is not convinced.
“This is one of the most extraordinary and meaningful things I can possibly participate in, to answer the question of if we are alone,” he said. “I want it to happen in my lifetime.”
An unconventional champion
Increasing federal government funding for anything might seem out of line for a Tea Partier, especially one who has called himself “genetically incapable of raising taxes.” In many ways, Culberson is as right-wing as they get: He’s called House Republicans an “oppressed minority,” sponsored a bill requiring presidential candidates to prove that they are American citizens, and once compared congressmen shutting down the federal government to passengers fighting the Al Qaeda hijackers on 9/11. “I’m fundamentally a libertarian at heart. I want the government to leave us alone, like all Texans do,” he said.
But Culberson sees no contradiction between his love of small government and his support for increasing space exploration funding. “The federal government is better equipped than any other part of our nation to invest in scientific research and space exploration because…it has the resources and the ability to think long term and multi-generation,” he said.
His advocacy for specific NASA missions and deep knowledge of space flies in the face of the typical portrait of conservative politicians as anti-science, which Culberson says is “utterly and totally false.” “He gets the science, he gets the big picture and the intrigue and he loves rolling up his sleeves and trying to figure out how to get this done,” Hand said of the congressman.
Notably, Culberson’s insistence that politicians should listen to scientists isn’t quite the same when it comes to climate change. While he admits that humans have had an effect on the climate, he believes there’s not enough data on how drastic climate change is—ignoring an overwhelming majority of expert opinions—and opposes cap-and-trade or carbon taxes.
Going forward, Culberson has introduced a bill giving NASA head administrators a six-to-10 year term separate from presidents—just like FBI chiefs—in order to make the organization more strategic in its long-term thinking. He also said he hopes to pass a “space homestead act” that would allow private sector companies to mine asteroids and make a profit, in order to encourage more innovation in the private sector space industry.
Culberson got his first telescope as a Christmas present at age 12, and used it regularly “until the city put a streetlight in front of my house and ruined my night vision.” Big government's first slight, perhaps. Today, he still uses a telescope he got in high school, watching the stars and dreaming about finding life somewhere out there.
“I derive a great deal of spiritual and emotional satisfaction out of spending a quiet time observing the stars and thinking about, frankly, how absolutely insignificant we are in the scale of the universe,” Culberson said. “We’re barely a particle in a wisp of smoke in the galaxy and the universe—what a privilege to be part of God’s creation.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.