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

By Phil Plait | July 22, 2006 10:09 am

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?"


Comments (29)

  1. Back in the 70’s NASA talked about “spin offs”. What was invented for outer space technology could be used for advances in earth science and “for the benefit of all mankind”

    Yes, the vision of NASA is going through a transformation in the 21st Century. And the earth still needs repair. Can NASA repair the earth and hubble at the same time? Yes! Nevertheless, funding is kept within the scope of Washington D.C.’s law makers.

    If the United States of America had a Department of the Environment, then, NASA could go forward without looking back. If we don’t repair the earth with applied science (including NASA spin offs) we won’t be able to return safely to a SAFE earth”

  2. Swordfish

    Well there’s another place on my list of “where not to work after college.” This does worry me in any case, however. Am I right to assume that all of those earth science satellites in orbit were put there by NASA? If that’s the case, then Meteorology is gona be a bit tough for me to do if NASA stops putting those up there. Not to step on the Oceanography or Geology folks out there either, but I can’t really vouch for those as I’m not sure of their depedancy on satellites. Though I’m sure it’ll be a huge hit to those sciences as well.

  3. John Oliver

    What ever happened to “Mission to Planet Earth”

    (I note that this page has not been updated in a while)

  4. Grayson Mattila

    “and aeronautics research”

    At least this was added. IMHO high-altitude high-speed aeronautics research has taken a backseat at NASA for too long a time. It is the National AERONAUTICS and Space Administration, after all.

  5. Aerik

    I sincerely doubt a Department of the Environment would have done much good as an extension of the presidency. Cabinet members are partisan henchmen, remember?

    But if we associated NASA with the environmentalism movement, instead of terrorist Peta members and GreenPeace international incidents (and “new-age” “tree-huggers” actually exist, bleh), now that would be something.

    Now that monitoring the environment has began to meld with NASA’s category of expertise, looking at Earth from space to see it in greater context, the Bush administration would like to make sure that never happens.

    Nope, nothin’ to see in them stars out there, no siree. Let’s just sit in our rockin’ chairs on the porch with nothin in sight but our own mediocrity.

  6. Hmmm… Maybe the deletion of the “home planet” words is an attempt to ditch embarrassing environmental studies, maybe it’s just reflecting budget realities (Bush has mandated we be back on the moon by 2020, and NASA isn’t getting the funding to both repeat Apollo *AND* do environmental monitoring).

    I’m surprised that an EPO (education & public outreach) guy like the BA didn’t pick up on the other deletion — “to inspire the next generation of explorers…”

    So whaddaya’ think, Phil? Does NASA HQ seem to be de-emphasizing the “inspiration” part of their (old) charter?

  7. Hmmm… Maybe the deletion of the “home planet” words is an attempt to ditch embarrassing environmental studies, maybe it’s just reflecting budget realities (Bush has mandated we be back on the moon by 2020, and NASA isn’t getting the funding to both repeat Apollo *AND* do environmental monitoring).

    I’m surprised that an EPO (education & public outreach) guy like the BA didn’t pick up on the other deletion — “to inspire the next generation of explorers…”

    So whaddaya’ think, Phil? Does NASA HQ seem to be de-emphasizing the “inspiration” part of their (old) charter?

    As for Swordfish’s career ambitions, there’s always NOAA (they pretty much focus on meteorology).

  8. Global warming? Ignore it, maybe it will go away.

    I used to think global warming might have simply been a cycle in earth weather. Sites I’ve visited in the last couple of years have taught me to think more. We have August weather in Southern California at the end of June.

    Her ya go, pull the other one…

  9. gopher65

    This change greatly disappoints me. I’m really beginning to dislike the direction NASA is headed in.

  10. Kaptain K

    “This change greatly disappoints me. I’m really beginning to dislike the direction NASA is headed in.”

    Direction? What direction? NASA has been headed nowhere for some time now and from what I can see, they’re making good time! :(

  11. Here is the old statement:

    NASA Mission Statement:
    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.

    Interestingly, I cannot find the vision statement anywhere on NASA’s site, so I got this old one from the Oklahoma Space Grant page.

    I read the NYT article, but didn’t have time this morning to actually find the vision statement, and now I cannot find it anywhere on NASA’s site! So I cannot even independently confirm it’s been changed. NASA’s website is a horrible mess, and impossible to navigate. If anyone knows where the new statement is on, please post it here.

  12. Henrik, Sweden

    Search for it using the search form on the top of the page.

  13. Joe

    What did you expect after the coordinated attack by those know-it-all scientists on the Bush Admin’s NASA public affairs hack intentionally put in place (by the Bush Admin) to tone down the NASA Global Warming message. You big brain science types made sure he was tar’d and feathered and run out of town – just because he didn’t have some fancy college degree. So you thought that now NASA will be free to do great science that will help save humanity from itself after the much publicized incident. Sorry, you forgot who runs the show and they are definitely not for helping NASA scientists continue to prove just how bad Global Warming is for the planet. Hence, if the Global Warming message coming out of NASA can’t be carefully massaged and controlled – then suprise. The Bush Administration will then just kill off the entire program to make dam% sure that NASA quits talking about Global Warming and backing up their statements with those research fact thingies.

  14. Grayson Mattila

    Well, scroll down to the bottom of this page: for the old mission statement. Of course, one could assume that some of the pages havn’t been updated yet.

  15. Will. M.

    Also: In the July 15, vol. 170 no.3 issue of Science News is a lead article regarding the closing of the EPA libraries, ostensibly due to budget constraints. A quote from the item: “It’s an affront to the public’s right to know,” Carole Browner, former head of EPA. And this: “Closing the libraries will reduce or eliminate the EPA scientists’ access to tens of thousands of unique documents…” As I have mentioned before, this administration is an equal-opportunity science-basher.

  16. Gary Ansorge

    Obviously, the Bushiits are shooting back. ” If we can’t get them danged scientisks to quit tokin about the climate, we’ll just get rid of their jobs,,,”

    Every civilization falls because of crappy leadership.

    George thinks, ” A leader chooses a direction and persues it to the end,,,” or words to that effect. Unfortunately, that’s NOT a leader,,,that’s a boss, like Saddam Hussain. Never admit error. It undermines your authority.
    A REAL leader makes choices based upon best available inforrmation and as that information changes, leadership must change its choices as well. Bush is NOT a leader. He’s a guy who runs businesses into the ground. Now he’s our version of Nero. He fiddles while the world burns,,,

    The only way to deal with fools such as this is to run them and their cronies out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered so others will know them,,,

    Then start with new representatives. I think in some quarters that might be referred to as a revolution.

    Seems to me I recall Tom Jefferson proposing the same solution to “profesionalism in politics”. Every 10 to 20 years, throw out ALL the bums,,,

    GAry 7

  17. Tom

    There are some deeper things at work here. While NASA has done some groundbreaking research in Earth observations, once that technology becomes operational (like weather observation) another agency, NOAA takes it over. The weather predictions you get come from satellites that are purchased with NOAA money, although NASA is involved to varying degrees with the development of the satellites. Over the last 12 years or so, a very sophisticated polar-orbiting satellite called NPOESS was supposed to take over much of the long-term (3 days+) weather prediction as well as climate study. Their motto basically was “science quality data at an operational pace.” NPOESS is currently in some budget and schedule trouble.

    I am surprised that it took so long for this change in mission statement to come out.

  18. It seems to me it would smart for these scientists (Who are having their programs cut) to take their programs somewhere else. I’m sure there are some companies that would like to do some pioneering space work..

    Can someone get Microsoft on the horn? We need to get to Mars, but please just fund the mission. Don’t design the software! But really, why arent these big companies doing more for research and space exploration? The money is certainly there. I guess all this focus on NASA in a day and age when (given the funding) we can become our own nasa seems short sighted. But, I suppose it’s not that easy.

  19. JC

    As a NASA-supported researcher and subscriber to NASA e-mail announcements and press releases, I am surprised that I have not heard about this change in the mission statement until now. It’s worth noting that NASA (like many organizations) has both a “mission statement” and a “vision statement”. The vision statement is (based on what is prominently displayed at the entrance to JPL, at least as of my last trip there in January):
    “To improve life here,
    To extend life to there,
    To find life beyond”

    It would be interesting if NASA has changed the vision statement to no longer include the “to improve life here” component.

  20. Scott

    It’s not totally clear why this change was made . . .

    Well duh, it’s because, even if they won’t admit it publicly, they already know this planet is doomed and the only way to flourish is on other planets. Face it, they know Earth is doomed and can’t justify wasting anymore money on a dieing planet.

  21. Grayson Mattila

    Robert Timsah said:
    “Can someone get Microsoft on the horn?…”

    Well, Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, was the only investor in SpaceShipOne, which won the X-Prize. Bill Gates’ foundation is busy improving world education (along with poverty), in which one could hypothesize that by improving education, Gates is helping train the next generation of NASA scientists, engineers, and leaders.

  22. Troy

    I tend to agree with Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmidt’s response when invited to look at the Earth. From space Earth is the prettiest of them all though.

  23. RobertTimsah askedabout big companies fundingspaceexploration et al. Problem is the way we humans – & particularly big profit-seekingcompanies think regarding the short-term versus the long term.

    Big companies put raking in stacks of profit first above absolutely everything else – above human rights, above the environment, above the future esp. the longer term future.

    That’s why they can’t be trusted to develop space exploration or work for the longer term benefit – even if that ‘longer term’ is just decades off rather than fifty or a hundred years.

    That axiom is why “corporate ethics” is an oxymoron, why business needs tobe regulatedand cannot be trusted to run public services or act for the good of society.

    Space travel, & space-based scientific research deyond the bounds of narrow commercial instances requires government involvement – it takes time, it involves intangible and serendiptious benefits as well as the more obvious $-making ones and it takes an awfully big amount of moolah. Plus it provides longand medium term benefits to everyone – not just thefew consumers or stock-holders of any one large corporation.

    That means, by necessity, governments need to be involved and indeed, whole societies do. That’s why NASA is a public, government organisation not an R &D branch of say, MacDonnell-Douglas. Private indutsry, the multinational corporations are by their nature intrinsically unsuited to running broad-based, public-national-&-International good, long-term space programs.

    Tragically, the United States has been ideologically blinded to this truism for a long while now; won over by rhetoric about untramelled capitalism that in the long run hurts & is hurting everyone making our planetary & most personal futures far worse than they need be.

    This ominous development in the Republican, “Christian” & unbalanced, unchecked capitalist fundamentalist, neo-conservatives war against anything they don’t want to hear -or worse have the public hear is part of that larger picture. Its yet another reason why everyone needs to oppose that mob for all our sakes.

    Is there a place for private enterprise in space – of course there is and probably more so later on when costs go down and technology improves for greater accessibility. But do we also – or even more – need NASA and organisations like it – nationally or even internationally run government based space programs looking out for everyone’s interests and everyones future rather than immediate piles of money? Absolutely yes!

    Is this latest signal of mad Prez George the Seconds drive to stick everyone’s heads further in the suffocating sands of illogic and thirteenth century thinking unpleasantly ominous. I sure think so.

  24. Footnote : By ’13th century thinking’ I was referring to things like

    “The world is flat’ (& only thousands of years old) – ‘& we can’t explore further or we’ll be faced with the end of the world.’

    “Humans have Divine missions to civilise and convert everyone else who are evil pagan savages because they don’t follow exactly what our Holy Books or religious decrees state.”

    “The king – or hereditary president – is chosen by God, has absolute power next only to God and any who question his rule or rulings are heretics who must be persecuted and exterminated!”

    “If you don’t look or think about something it ceases to exist. If the Church says the Earth don’t spin, or go around the Sun, it don’t.”

    (Even then they had folks like Galileo to point out it moves all the same! Now, of course, we have the Republicans helped by the string-pulling Big Oil industry saying pretty much this about the Global Warming issue.)

    If you can’t see the parallels here with HerediPrez ‘Dubya’ George II the Mad then, frankly, I think you need to learn Braille …

    If there one thing I can’t understand about America (and yes, there’s a few) its how so many of you can fail democracy so badly by voting so poorly thus going backwards from Mad King George the Third to an even madder, more despotic George the Second .. Sigh.

  25. Umm Troy, what was Jack Schmidt’s response?

  26. Michael Lee

    Can anyone tell me who at NASA decides which missions will fly and which won’t? I’d like to know who the people are and their motivations. I’d also like to know how they got into such a cushy position of responsibility.


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