Sunday, August 06, 2006

NASA Mission Excludes Earth?

Another teapot tempest erupted a few weeks ago over NASA's removal of the following phrase from its mission statement: "to understand and protect our home planet." Apparently, NASA's new mission statement says, "to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research." (Here, NYT article requires registration.) The change has gotten criticism. (Here and here.)

Yet the reality is that Earth sciences will get around 50 percent of science funding for the next five years. (See pp. 32-34 of budget here.) And there's this statement by OSTP Director John Marburger.
"The first stage of exploiting cislunar space is already well advanced, partly because applications have been found that can be achieved with small payloads and yet whose value to society exceeds the cost of launch. It is likely that these near-Earth applications will always dominate the use of space because Earth is where the people are, as well as the environment that sustains them. We must never forget that within our Solar System the object most important for humankind is Earth, and Earth-oriented space applications merit priority in a balanced portfolio of public investment." (Here, para. 5.)
So even though the mission statement has changed, Earth research is likely to remain in NASA's plans. Too bad, actually.

Here's a NASA Ames webpage that apparently hasn't gotten the message about the new mission statement. It has an entirely different mission statement and it's a long one.
"To advance and communicate scientific knowledge and understanding of the earth, the solar system, and the universe. To advance human exploration, use, and development of space. To research, develop, verify, and transfer advanced aeronautics and space technologies."
What kind of mission statement is that? It's more like six mission statements rolled into one. It's unfocused, it's long, and it has too much information to comprehend easily.

Now compare that mission statement to the new supposedly objectionable statement."To pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research." (Here.) It's one short sentence that is easily comprehended. Despite it's brevity, it provides an overall description of what NASA is about. And it's a very broad statement. Notice that it doesn't limit scientific discovery to space. The breadth of the statement also leaves room to change the details of implementation as needs change over time.

It's hard to quantify the importance of a mission statement. Go to the NASA website (here) and try to find it. Good luck. Go to the NASA budget documents page (here) and you'll find it only in the strategic plan document. (Page 5 of 48.) Thus, the statement may not be as important as the complainers have made it out. What is clearly important is President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration and you'll find lots of discussion of that in NASA's documents.

Regardless, the critics are wrong. Part of NASA's problem has been that it tried to do too many things. NASA's primary mission should be exploration and discovery of space. NASA should be focused on looking up not down, out not in, and forward not backward. Pick your metaphor.


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