NASA decides there’s no place like home. And home is no place.

Contributed by
Jul 22, 2006

Reader Luke Skywalkthisway (I'm guessing that's a pseudonym) sent along this tidbit from the New York Times. I wasn't aware of this, but NASA has changed its official mission statement. While that's maybe only a little interesting in general, it's what they changed that's worth noting:

From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “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.”

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.”

The article says that NASA scientists are upset by this. I'm not surprised: if I were an Earth scientist at NASA (someone who studies climate, or atmospherics, or oceans, and all that) I'd be pretty unhappy if NASA suddenly excised what I study out of its "vision".

But it's more than that. Earth science has been getting hit pretty badly by budget cuts at NASA, so this is not happening in a vacuum. Worse, missions have been canceled left and right by NASA, and in some cases the scientists on the missions were not involved with the decision (like with the Dawn asteroid mission, later reinstated).

Many scientists are already working under a cloud, so to speak, wondering if their mission is about to be axed, and feeling somewhat powerless with decisions being made higher up.

Then NASA edits Earth science out of its vision statement. Now do you see why this is causing a problem?

It's not totally clear why this change was made, though it's obvious enough that it reflects the shift in NASA policy toward going back to the Moon, and on to Mars. But why not add that to the statement, instead of removing references to Earth science? I don't know, but it's impossible not to wonder about this in light of the shift away from Earth science.

If you go through my blog entries categorized under "NASA", you'll see I've been vocal about some of the policies that have come from NASA admin lately. But even with all that, it's hard for me to ascribe a more deeply nefarious purpose to this vision change without more data. It's possible, but without any real evidence I would not venture to make any firm statements about motivations.

But others have been speculating. The NYT article goes on to quote James Hansen, the climate scientist who has been in the news so much lately due to the way his conclusions about global warming had been muzzled by a political appointee in NASA:

Dr. Hansen said the change might reflect White House eagerness to shift the spotlight away from global warming.

“They’re making it clear that they have the authority to make this change, that the president sets the objectives for NASA, and that they prefer that NASA work on something that’s not causing them a problem,” he said.

I'd love to see the context of that quotation. Andrew Revkin, the article's author, is a good reporter (he broke the story about Hansen's suppression) so I have little doubt the quotation is accurate. But that's a pretty strong statement to make given what little we know about the reasons behind the vision change.

I'll note that this change was made months ago, but it's just now starting to get noticed-- it's not the kind of thing that really jumps out at you, so it's understandable to me that this has taken a while to percolate up. Still, at the moment, we can certainly add this to the (growing) list of things NASA does that makes you go, "say what?"

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