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Talking Science With The House Committee Chair

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, discusses the nation's top science priorities, including the importance of research on how to protect Earth from dangerous asteroids. But in a tight budgetary climate, who will pay?

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Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. Remember the meteor that exploded over Siberia and the asteroid that took a close swing by our planet? You also remember that these things happened on Friday, the same day. Congressman Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, called these two events a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science. He says we need to study and track near-Earth asteroids and invest in research on how to protect our planet from space rocks.

But with the nation collectively tightening its belt and with $85 billion in automatic spending cuts going into effect today, the sequester deadline, where's the money going to come from? Representative Lamar Smith is a Republican from the 21st District of Texas. He is chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He joins us by phone from San Antonio. A shout-out to Texas Public Radio, San Antonio and Austin, one of our two most powerful stations is your district, Congressman. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

REPRESENTATIVE LAMAR SMITH: I'm glad to hear it, Ira. Good to be with you and your listeners, as well.

FLATOW: Thank you. You're going to have a hearing soon, is that right, to discuss...?

SMITH: We have a hearing scheduled for next Wednesday, March 6. I suspect it will get a lot of attention. And the hearing is on incoming objects from space that might or might not be headed towards the United States - headed toward the Earth, and I worry about the United States I guess as much as anything else. But this is a hearing that is going to try to find out what more we can be doing so that we can detect these incoming objects that might do us harm and possibly even prevent them from hitting the Earth if that is where they are going.

The concern we have is that we are not able right now, we don't have the capability, of detecting these what are called near-Earth objects, and there are objects of such a size that if they're not civilization-ending, they could certainly be demolish a city or incapacitate an entire country. We just need to make sure that we know if they're headed our way, and if they are headed our way try to figure out what to do about it.

FLATOW: And what could we do to find out those things?

SMITH: Well, a couple of things. The best way to be able to observe, track and detect these near-Earth objects is by means of telescopes, either on the ground or out in space, perhaps in orbit around the sun, perhaps in orbit around the Earth - but get them out of the atmosphere that so distorts the images.

And right now we're going to having witnesses from the administration next Wednesday, including from NASA, telling us what they're doing right now, what their capability is and what more we need to do. And quite frankly I think we do need to spend more money on this particular - on this particular subject, but we need to prioritize our spending within NASA.

We're not going to be getting any more money. We might be getting less money. So we're going to have to re-prioritize and make sure that we give some more funds to this effort. When you have a situation where these near-Earth objects could actually threaten the lives of millions of people, I think we need to take more steps than we're taking now to be able to detect them.

FLATOW: Do you have any idea what this might cost?

SMITH: No I don't. You know, some of the telescope upgrades they were talking about might in the millions of dollars. There's a private effort underway. There is actually a half a billion dollars to put a telescope in orbit around the sun to try to detect these near-Earth objects that might be coming toward us, either asteroids or comets.

And so it's probably somewhere in between, not cheap, but if we start thinking about it now and planning for the future, then we're going to be able to I hope prevent a possible calamity from occurring in the future.

FLATOW: What parts of NASA, since you say that NASA's budget will have to decide where you take it from, where would you see in NASA's budget the money coming from?

SMITH: Well, I don't know that we have looked at all the, you know, all the components and all the agencies within NASA, and maybe we can just spend money smarter. I don't know what we're going to have to shortchange if we have to re-prioritize the spending. But I'm sure we'll be able to come up with several million dollars to help, at the very minimum, improve our optics and improve the telescopes that we have now.

And - but again, this is what the administration will be testifying about before the Science, Space and Technology Committee next Wednesday.

FLATOW: So are you going to ask them to come up with ideas of where they might cut in their own budgets?

SMITH: Well, where they might find the funding, how they would re-prioritize, what kind of a priority they would give a project like this. And I think now this has gotten everybody's attention, and so everybody realizes that it needs to get a higher priority. And NASA, to its credit, has been spending some more money. They've been under guidelines from Congress for the last two or three years to make this a priority, and I think it's just going to get increased emphasis this year.

FLATOW: One last question, and I'll let you go. You know, this being sequestration day, are you concerned about budgets that you control in your committee, science budgets, that they might be slashed?

SMITH: Of course - well, let's put this in perspective. We're talking about across-the-board cuts of about 2.3 percent, and while it may mean more in certain areas, nevertheless, you know, it's regrettable, I wish we weren't having these kinds of cuts, they could have been avoided. I still think we need to cut spending, but we need to do in a smart way, not across-the-board way. And we could have set our priorities up if there had been a little bit more cooperation from the White House and from the Senate.

The House of Representatives has actually twice passed offsets to the sequestration. The Senate has not passed anything. And the administration hasn't come up with any specific alternatives to the sequestration; only the House has. So if they can't come up with a better idea, let's go with the House idea, and we could have avoided it.

FLATOW: All right, well, I'm certainly not one to debate the politics of this with you because as you know we'll get nowhere. But I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today and wish you good luck in deciding - because I think, you know, maybe the public really does believe this is a national priority about finding that asteroid with our name on it.

SMITH: We haven't - we don't know that one has the Earth's name on it yet, but we need to find out if such an asteroid is out there, and I think the American people do consider this to be a priority.

FLATOW: Congressman Smith, thank you very much for joining us today. Lamar Smith, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Republican from Texas. He is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which he's also - he's based in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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