LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE, California — The political attack went straight to the jugular vein. In an effort to oust Republican incumbent John Culberson from the House of Representatives, a pro-democracy political action committee ad mocked his enthusiasm for science and passion for finding life on another world for the first time.
“He wanted NASA to search for aliens on Europa, an icy moon millions of miles away,” the narrator said. “For Houston, Lizzie Fletcher will invest in humans, not aliens.”
The impartial Planetary Society denounced the ad as anti-science. “This rejection of a scientifically valid field of study — one that could potentially reshape entire fields of science — should be flatly rejected by any citizen committed to a modern scientific society, regardless of political affiliation,” argued Casey Dreier, the organization’s chief advocate. . .
It did not help. On election night in 2018, Houston attorney and emerging politician Lizzie Fletcher Culberson defeated by five points in what had been a traditional Republican district. After 18 years in the House, Culberson, a conservative who had achieved enough seniority to chair the subcommittee that sets NASA’s budget, drowned under a blue wave.
In California, several dozen engineers and scientists working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had been closely monitoring the election. Regardless of their political affiliations, they felt dismay as this one Republican went down. Since 2013, the Texas congressman had pumped more than $1 billion into two daring missions to an icy moon that may well harbor life in its subterranean oceans. One of these missions, the Clipper, would make dozens of close flights of Europe to examine the ice and make all kinds of detailed measurements. The second, the Lander, would survive for about a month on a swaying ice world bathed in Jupiter’s harsh radiation.
The loss of Culberson cast doubt on all that. In January, he will be out of his powerful position atop the Appropriations Subcommittee responsible for financing the government’s Trade, Science and Justice departments. The $740 million he promised Clipper and Lander in fiscal 2019 was already questionable.
In late November, the day the InSight probe landed on the surface of Mars, Culberson traveled to California to meet these scientists and engineers for the last time as chairman. Soon he would no longer be the person who could provide the money they needed to buy rockets, build instruments and assemble the spacecraft that could explore Europe’s vast, mysterious ocean.
Ars was exclusively invited for the experience. Would this be a funeral, a party, or a bit of both?