The Why Files The Why Files --

NASA: Forget 'Home planet.' Space is the Place


Space is the place
Teal sea threatens to engulf string of islands in south PacificAnd Earth can fend for itself. That is the quick-and-dirty message from NASA, which has historically applied its tremendous technical talents to a mission statement that specified "Understand and protect our home planet." That common-sense idea has been part of NASA's purpose since the agency was founded in 1958.

The Maldives (population 330,000) are an Indian-Ocean island nation that average just 1 meter above sea level. These atolls were viewed by Aster, a satellite instrument operated jointly by Japan and the United States. Rising sea levels caused by global warming threaten this nation's national security. Photo: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Protecting the "home planet" may have a sci-fi ring, but it does seem reasonable: even NASA's superb space telescopes have not located a spare planet that would make a decent home-away-from-home, let alone a permanent refuge if we humans succeed in wrecking this planet by burning fossil fuels and causing run-amok global warming.

Nonetheless, last February, the Bush Administration quietly torpedoed that "understand and protect" lingo. According to The New York Times (see "NASA's Goals Delete Mention ..." in the bibliography), "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.'"

The paper of record noted that NASA's commitment to Earth science is as old as NASA itself: "In the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which established the agency in 1958, the first objective of the agency was listed as 'the expansion of human knowledge of the earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.'"

Man in white coat stands behind a gizmo headed for space
The Television Infrared Observation Satellite (TIROS) before launch in 1960. Two television cameras aboard TIROS captured the spiral clouds in hurricanes, immediately proving the benefits of viewing weather from space. Photo: NASA

Many NASA employees heard about February mission-statement-editing after the fact. NASA spokespeople cast the change as necessary to align the agency's mission with President Bush's goal of sending people to the moon and Mars.

Some experts speculated that money played a role in the downgrading of Earth science. The space shuttles and the International Space Station are gobbling million-dollar bills like an industrial paper shredder, forcing cuts in many scientific projects. Alex Roland, a former NASA historian who is now professor of history at Duke University, wrote us to say, "NASA must complete the space station, fly out the shuttle, develop a new launch vehicle, and figure out how to build a base on the moon from which to launch a manned mission to Mars -- all without any significant increase in its budget. Though [NASA] Administrator [Michael] Griffin promised to touch 'not one thin dime' of space science funding, his resolve lasted little more than a few months. Since the beginning of the year we have seen 'technology' aeronautics, and space science all being sacrificed on the altar of human 'exploration.'"

On July 28, CNN reported that NASA may suspend all remaining scientific research on the space station to paper over a budget shortfall from 2006. And on July 31, 2006, The Washington Post opined that Bush's "soaring pronouncements" about visiting the moon and Mars had "flopped," and asked that NASA be redirected to the real problem of global warming: "Mr. Bush needs to get his head out of the stars. Even though scientists agree that Earth is warming, they still need to investigate how, and how fast, the phenomenon is proceeding -- a much more pressing task than landing on the Red Planet. The White House has to either pay responsibly for its exploration programs or cancel them."

Blues and purples collide  under rippling ocean waves
Waves in the Bay of Bengal, seen from space (notice how several wave patterns intersect?) Here, beauty is more than skin deep. Space-based data and images permit a global picture of the oceans and the planet. Photo: NASA/ASTER

Hear no evil, speak no evil?
A second plausible explanation for the change in the mission statement would be based in obvious Bush-Administration wariness of the Earth science that NASA has produced, especially concerning global warming. In particular, NASA climatologist James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies,Graph charts the dramatic raise of global surface temperatures in the last 30 years. has long been vocal about the reality of a warming planet. In 2005, for example, Hansen used data from space to conclude that Earth is absorbing about 0.8 watts per square meter more energy than it is releasing to space. That entails into a steady warm-up.

Top: Global annual surface temperatures (from weather stations, ships and satellites) compared to the average 1951-1980. In the past 30 years, Earth warmed by 0.6 &DEG C (1.08 &DEG F). Bottom: Global temperatures from 2005. Red = major warming; blue = major cooling, both compared to 1951-1980 average. Most of the globe has warmed, especially the Arctic. Graphs: NASA/Goddard

Despite working for a government that pooh-poohs global warming, Hansen has published data that are inconvenient to global warming skeptics: "The five warmest years over the last century occurred in the last eight years."

Such whole-earth studies rely on data from space. In the ideal world, research that helps us understand and protect Earth might be a point of pride to the public servants who administrator NASA. Instead, according to the Times, Hansen has complained publicly "that he was being threatened by political appointees for speaking out about the dangers posed by greenhouse gas emissions." Hansen, the paper added, often quoted the "understand and protect" phrase as justification for his work. He did not return an e-mail seeking comment for this story, nor did NASA headquarters.

Satellite data on heat stored in oceans, 1993-2003
Red, yellow and orange areas signal warming areas of the ocean
The huge amount of heat energy stored in the oceans may eventually reach the atmosphere. NASA scientist James Hansen and his colleagues warn that if we blithely keep storing heat in the ocean, it could come back to bite us. Heat already stored in the ocean could warm the atmosphere by another 0.6 ° C. Graph: NASA/Goddard

Although Hansen will no longer have the mission statement to justify his research on global warming, on July 29, Griffin assured The New York Times that the change does not reduce NASA's commitment to Earth science. "The strategic plan states that one of our strategic goals is to "study Earth from space to advance scientific understanding and meet societal needs."

But skepticism remains. One scientist (who did not want to be named for fear of retribution from NASA) questioned the motivation behind this recent change. City grid of rapidly expanding urban sprawl in desert seen from space"It's really curious to see these changes coming during the Bush Administration — perhaps the most science-unfriendly administration in recent history. From having White House flunkies doctoring scientific reports on global warming, putting political 'minders' in charge of science communication, and slashing budgets for Earth and environmental science, you have to wonder if this is all politically driven."

Mission matters
The squabble matters because NASA has made immense contributions to almost every aspect of Earth science, in climate, weather, natural resources, oceanography, and the human impact on the environment. To take one random example, if you visited NASA's home page on July 25, you would have seen an article relating changes in rainfall in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, to the city's steady expansion.

Satellite data has found many surprising links between human activity and "natural" phenomena. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital, is shown in 1972, 1990 and 2000, as its population grew from about a half million to above 2 million. NASA scientists have measured increases in rainfall around expanding cities. Photos: NASA

That's one of hundreds of examples of research that would be difficult or impossible from the ground. Steven Running of the University of Montana uses NASA's Earth Observing System to track land plant productivity -- to measure how much carbon dioxide plants are converting to sugars. (A separate research group is following ocean plants). In the debate over global warming, this data tells us how much carbon dioxide plants are removing from the atmosphere, which tends to slacken the greenhouse effect. "We are monitoring photosynthetic activity on 110 million square kilometers per day," Running said. "You try to imagine a sampling scheme that would do that on the ground!"

What else has NASA done for Earth science? Why should we care about a change in the mission statement?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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