Earth sciences editorials

On the heels of the somewhat overblown story that NASA had changed its mission statement to delete a reference to Earth sciences come some editorials in major newspapers critical of NASA’s overall priorities. The New York Times published one such editorial Friday, claiming that “earth studies seem to be in trouble”. Evidence for this includes the cancellation of Triana (although the spacecraft isn’t mentioned by name), the delay of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission, and cuts in research and analysis funding (something that affects other science programs, not just Earth science.)

A similar editorial appears in today’s Washington Post, although the claims it makes are a little sketchy. The Post claims that the Hydros mission to study soil moisture “got the ax”, although NASA intended that mission only to be a backup should one of two other missions run into problems (albeit with some confusion among the Hydros team about exactly what their status was). The editorial also claims that “NASA’s satellite network that monitors global weather patterns — including hurricane formation — is aging, and replacements may arrive late or not at all.” It’s not clear what satellites they’re referring to, since hurricane monitoring is done principally by NOAA, not NASA. It could be a reference to NPOESS, but that is a joint project among NASA, NOAA, and the DOD, whose problems have largely been beyond the control or blame of NASA. The Post also argues that “NASA is uniquely qualified to do things such as launch and maintain weather satellites.” That statement is debatable: while NASA oversees the development and launch of the GOES weather satellites, they are operated by NOAA, which also manages the overall program.

The two editorials also have slightly different recommendations about what NASA should do to rectify this problem. “Mr. Bush needs to get his head out of the stars,” the Post advises, arguing that “The White House has to either pay responsibly for its exploration programs or cancel them.” The Times, meanwhile, tacitly endorses the Senate’s billion-dollar supplemental funding proposal for NASA, saying that without it Earth sciences, and science programs in general, will be “a casualty of the administration’s insistence on completing the space station.”

5 comments to Earth sciences editorials

  • Dennis Ray Wingo


    The fundamental underpinning of their argument is a geocentric viewpoint that disregards human exploration as not applicable to solving the problems of providing energy and material resources for a global civilization.


    I feel an article coming on.


  • Would that be the global warming and climate change is Milankovitch cycles and an increase in solar irradiance peer reviewed and published scientific article we’ve been waiting so long for?

  • Grist for your mill here — lead editorial in last week’s Nature

    It begins and ends thus:

    Ten years ago this month, NASA scientists found possible evidence for life on Mars in a meteorite, kick-starting the nascent discipline of astrobiology (Science 273, 924–930; 1996). That particular evidence has not stood the test of time, and the infant discipline has also disappointed some.

    But the astrobiological vision of a Universe that had a role for biology as well as for chemistry and physics was a powerful one. It linked the study of some 4 billion years of life on Earth with a yearning for hints of life beyond. It was a vision that balanced the outward urge to explore space with an inward appreciation of the sort of world from which we set out and to which we come home. This is the sort of balance that NASA needs today — and which, to judge from a contentious change in the space agency’s mission statement, its leadership seems happy to lose.


    NASA administrator Michael Griffin argues that the agency is still committed to Earth science through the part of its mission statement that commits it to “scientific discovery”, and that what “protect” meant was never clear. For all that, the excision still echoes the only decent scene in the movie Superman III: “I hope you don’t expect me to save you,” that other icon of the American way informs a damsel in distress, “cause I don’t do that any more.” Except this time there’s no artificial kryptonite to pin the blame on. And it’s not funny.

    It is bad enough that Earth science at NASA has already fallen victim to cuts and cancellations — as has, for what its worth, astrobiology. Now an important rhetorical basis for resisting more attrition has been removed, feeding fears that a real understanding of how the climate works is not high on the administration’s agenda. Earth sciences are still well represented in NASA’s plans, but they have been symbolically set aside to further a vision that looks only outwards, never back.

    This situation should not be allowed to continue. Employees, grantees and others with a stake in the agency should press hard to have the change reversed. A NASA that does not see its interest in the living Earth as essential is as much of a betrayal as a Superman without altruism.


  • Jeff Foust

    Thanks, Oliver. I saw the editorial listed in the table of contents online but I’m too poor (okay, too cheap) to pay the $30 (!!) it costs to read it…

  • Nature (via Oliver): but they have been symbolically set aside to further a vision that looks only outwards, never back.

    The assumption is that this is entirely a bad thing. I would argue that since the 1970s, we’ve spent far too much of our effort looking back, and far too little moving out. That’s not the advice we give our young people when they are ready to leave home. We want them to learn history, yes, but we emphatically want them to leave home to create their own futures.

    This should be no less true of a young species than it is of young individuals. Yes, we should look back at the Earth, but only if the price is not losing the VSE (or something like it).

    — Donald