Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times featured an op-ed by Paul Thornton, a researcher for the paper’s editorial page, decrying the state of NASA’s Earth sciences program. Thornton finds a topical hook for his piece: the return of the space shuttle Endeavour one day early because of Hurricane Dean, which was monitored by, among other satellites, the aging QuikSCAT spacecraft. The essay follows a well-worn path: the “moon-crazed Bush administration” is not spending enough money on Earth science. Indeed, without the current events reference, this argument follows the same lines as similar editorials on NASA’s Earth sciences program discussed here back in January.
Thornton operates under the assumption that Earth sciences should be something NASA does, just that it should do more of it (how much more is apparently beyond the scope of this particular essay.) After all, NASA has done Earth sciences work for decades, and “The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth” is one of the objectives of the nation’s “aeronautical and space activities”, as defined in the National Aeronautics and Space Act. But there have been rumblings from time to time about whether NASA is the best home for Earth sciences research. During a panel session at the NewSpace 2007 conference last month, for example, there was some discussion of the formation of a “Department of the Environment” in a future (probably Democratic) administration that could absorb NASA’s Earth sciences programs. Also noteworthy is that legislation introduced earlier in the year in the House and Senate to authorize a replacement for QuikSCAT would give responsibility for the program to NOAA (“in consultation” with NASA and any other relevant federal agencies). NOAA and NASA, of course, already work together closely on some Earth sciences programs, and plan to strengthen that relationship, Aerospace Daily reported this week.
So, perhaps the question to ask is not how to get NASA to pay more attention to Earth sciences, but whether NASA should be in that line of work at all. Not that any shift like that would be easy to do, of course.