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To Understand and Protect Our Home Planet
Alex Steffen, 24 Jul 06

Washington, we have a problem.

NASA's mission statement used to be “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers ... as only NASA can.” Now, however, it's been changed:

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted. In this year’s budget and planning documents, the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.” ...
But the change comes as an unwelcome surprise to many NASA scientists, who say the “understand and protect” phrase was not merely window dressing but actively influenced the shaping and execution of research priorities. Without it, these scientists say, there will be far less incentive to pursue projects to improve understanding of terrestrial problems like climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

As we've said before, to truly know the Earth, we need to take to space. A whole array of useful information about our planet can only be learned by leaving it -- whether by launching satellites, sending unmanned probes to other planets, or even shooting ourselves into the depths of space. Space exploration is green, and, even more, the green benefits of space exploration may be the strongest argument for undertaking it.

But, of course, there are those who don't want us to learn more about the planet and the state it's in. People involved in selling us energy derived from the burning of hydrocarbons seem particularly ill-disposed towards the pursuit of knowledge these days. And given that the government of the richest, most powerful nation in the world takes its advice about science almost exclusively from the Carbon Lobby, NASA seems unlikely to change its mission back any time soon.

In the meantime, I wonder if we ought to keep the idea of science in service to planet warm by plastering the phrase on any website we can this week?

(Images: Earth and Moon as Viewed from Mars, NASA; Thanks, Erica!)

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This is perhaps the great irony of the current administration: so inarticulate a figurehead, yet so much awareness of the importance of language.

Posted by: sarah irene on 24 Jul 06

Sometimes I wonder how long it take to undue the damage dealt by the [mis]administration's heavy-handed spin control and industry F.U.D.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 24 Jul 06

NASA should be focusing on how to get people and objects into space in a cheaper manner. Who cares what their mission statement is? Do you think that the billions of dollars spent on the space program have been prioritized to Earth sciences?

You're dreaming. 70% of the money from NASA goes directly into launch costs of both manned and unmanned vessels. NASA needs to not worry about any sciences except physics until they come up with a way THROUGH physics to get things into orbit in a cost effective manner.

Until then, its moot what their mission statement is. What it really says (regardless of any words they use) is this: "We will waste billions of dollars on a 40 year old mechanism of launching into orbit. In return, we promise that the little science we can do will be available to very few and cost an arm and a leg."

There are a lot more important things to talk about that some arbitrary "mission" statement from NASA.

Posted by: Adam on 24 Jul 06

Despite Adam's comment, this matters. Any organization, system, organism, or collective behaves according to its intrinsic goals. This isn't about language, it's about intention. NASA's Mission to Planet Earth has done good work and good science. At a time when we desperately need planetary assessment and feedback, we're denying that assessment and feedback.

That, of course, is the intent. Tragic shortsightedness. Definitely worth contacting your representative and senators about, if you're an American citizen.

Posted by: David Foley on 24 Jul 06

Hey Alex,

I'll look for appropriate places where I can put this message up.

BTW, as a seperate issue but in a similar vein, Rupert Sheldrake is a very interesting scientist who has called for supporting science in the public interest. Apparently there is virtually no funding at all for science done in the public interest; At least this is so when compared to funding available for commercial interest.

Wouldn't it be nice if most of the funding available were for science in service of planet and public interest?

Jeremy Kirouac

Posted by: Jeremy Kirouac on 24 Jul 06

Not to completely agree with Adam on this, but there is actually a sort-of meaningfulness to this that may be ok. On Earth-observation as far as weather and climate goes, we already have an excellent agency within the Department of Commerce that does most of it now - NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). I think, to a degree, this change in NASA's mission statement is intended to more sharply define the differences between the agencies. Similar issues with science generally for instance - if there's good science to be done, NSF is probably more competent to administer it than NASA is. It's good that NASA have a clear focus; too many missions mean loss of focus, and while it can do well on some, it certainly can't do well on all of them at once.

Yes it's a political statement, and undoubtedly some in the Bush administration are cheering this because they hate the evidence on global warming that comes from satellite observations now. It's also very disappointing if it means they're really cutting off funding to some of the pioneers - James Hansen for instance, who works at NASA's Goddard Institute in Manhattan. But I haven't heard of such a proposal yet, so far it's just a change in the statement of focus for the agency, and if that makes things clearer for them to actually accomplish what they could do, I think it's a good thing.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 24 Jul 06

What is good for the Earth is good for the body, correct? Why should we travel away from the planet, when we still do not know how the body and the planet really work. I feel the deep abyss will provide better research than playing star wars in space.

Posted by: Omar Davila on 24 Jul 06

NASA also just cut the Earth Science research budget by about 20%.
And it was done in a really sneaky way.

Instead of having congress approve this budget cut, it was done in the middle of the fiscal year FY2006 by administrative fiat. Everyone in the Earth Science program was just told to cut their budgets by 20%, even though Congress had already approved the budget as it was. That way, they didn't have to say that the budget for Earth Science was being cut when the deliberations over the FY07 budget were happening.

There's no doubt about it. Science (at NASA and other places) is under attack right now.

I receive funding from NASA, so I'm deliberately not leaving my name. That's how bad things are getting.

- Anonymous

Posted by: anonymous on 24 Jul 06

Their next slogan should be "To seek out new planets to trash"

Posted by: James Orman on 24 Jul 06

I just got a heads up about this from a co-worker who gets NASA funding. He let us know that at a recent meeting at MIT with a NASA administrator, he asked a question about Earth Science work, and got a blunt answer to the effect of "We don't do that, that's what NOAA is for", much to the shock of, well, colleagues at both NASA and NOAA! He also mentioned that NOAA's funding is currently under siege.

FWIW, he said the mission statement was commonly referred to for justification in project proposals. It's absense *does* mean something.

Does anyone else remember some NASA scientists contradicting the Bush Administration on global warming? I wonder if this is some sort of reprisal, or just some sort of cold-blooded effort to shut down any science which might contradict the party line.

Posted by: Anonymous on 24 Jul 06

NASA scientists, especially Jim Hansen at GISS, have been very vocal about two things:

1) Global warming is real

2) The White House has been trying to muzzle them

You decide if there was a political motivation for this...

Posted by: anonymous on 24 Jul 06

I have to chime back in and say that I don't have much patience for the "there are more important things we could be talking about" line. It's an easy and effective dismissal, one that can be pulled out in almost any situation, and often is -- which is why I take the trouble to respond to it.

Even if we agree that this isn't the biggest scandal of our times, that doesn't mean it's not worth thinking and talking about. This is clearly connected to larger issues, especially the way scientific knowledge is manipulated and supppressed by the Bush administration.

Posted by: sarah irene on 24 Jul 06

In its most recent decadal survey of Earth science and applications from space, the National Research Council wrote:

"Understanding the complex, changing planet on which we live, how it supports life, and how human activities affect its ability to do so in the future is one of the greatest intellectual challenges facing humanity. It is also one of the most important for society as it seeks to achieve prosperity and sustainability."

The value that NASA plays in Earth science is huge, not merely because it has [had] the money, but because there is a certain perspective that goes along with NASA-funded research. Satellites have become so fundamental to the science, and to the daily weather report, that divorsing NASA from the other Earth-minded organizations, as the statement change tends to do, is a real loss for society.

Posted by: Daniel Collins on 25 Jul 06

I understand the frustration - but the reality for NASA is that, for about 10 years, they had almost fixed budgets without even inflation increases; finally the last 2-3 years they've been getting some boosts, but they've also been given a new assignment in human spaceflight, and they've had the shuttle accident, there's a huge clamor over Hubble which needs another human servicing mission, etc. Even the extra few percent its gotten in recent increases has not been much in this context.

In contrast, the president's new "Competitiveness Initiative", announced in the State of the Union this year, will double physical science funding in several other departments, but notably NOT including NASA (or NOAA, which is indeed cut in the latest budget). NSF is getting big increases, the Department of Energy, and NIST also.

Unfortunately, our political leadership does determine where science money goes - that is of course their job and their right as representatives of the American people. Scientists can respond either by chasing the money, or by trying to inform the American people of the dire consequences of decisions their representatives are making. I suggest it's time to emphasize the latter choice.

NASA was a good place to get Earth Science money for a while, and we should be grateful for that, but the fundamental problem is really elsewhere than in NASA's mission statement, I think.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 25 Jul 06

Nasa budget is shaped by admin policy. Admin policy is an extension of the polity. Polity is people. Therefore Political People set policy.

Get political. Change Policy.

Posted by: Chip on 25 Jul 06

Until we get fossil fuel taxes down, every unscrupulous public servant is going to be a member of the Carbon Lobby.

I believe the space probe that took that Earth-Moon photo was not at Mars. Rather, it had been boosted by Venus and was at the time being boosted by Earth ... and the moon ... for the climb to Jupiter. So it was much closer to us than Mars ever is.

Posted by: G. R. L. Cowan, former hydrogen fan on 25 Jul 06



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