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Is NASA giving up on Earth?

Andrew Freedman @ 8:46 AM

Andrew Freedman rejoins to write a regular Sunday opinion column.

NASA needs to find a way to continue to emphasize both research of our home planet and step up space exploration efforts. The agency is coming under increasing fire for cuts to its science programs in favor of funding President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, a realignment of priorities that some say may threaten agency weather and climate change research if it's mishandled.

Jason Samenow's Sunday Forecast

High ConfidenceVery warm and humid, slight t'storm chance. A cold front will slowly move through the area this afternoon. Ahead of it, it will be on the sticky side, with highs in the upper 80s and heat indices in the low 90s. Storm chances late this afternoon and evening are about 30% -- the main threat with any storms will be heavy rain.

Check back tomorrow for the complete week ahead forecast.

Elements of discontent have been emanating from NASA's Earth Science division for more than a year now. According to the Associated Press, last week three NASA advisers who publicly opposed budget cuts to the agency's science programs resigned from the NASA Advisory Council's science committee, two of them removed by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

One of the advisers, Eugene Levy (not the actor), provost at Rice University, said the advisors' emphasis on maintaining the agency's science programs "didn't comport with the kind of advice that the administrator and the chairman of the committee were looking for."

A NASA spokesman told the AP that the advisers were not fired due to their views on science funding.

Also this month, the leadership of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Ranking Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman, D-CT, sent a letter to the NASA administrator on August 1 to express "deep concern" over the recent elimination of the phrase "to understand and protect our home planet" from NASA's mission statement.

"At a time in which evidence grows on an almost daily basis of the potentially severe impacts of climate change, we find it inexplicable that NASA apparently no longer views protecting and understanding our home planet as a priority," the senators wrote.

"We do not believe that science on our home planet should be sacrificed in order to explore distant planets. NASA can, and should, do both."

Prior to the deletion, James Hansen, NASA's top climate change researcher, cited the phrase as a reason why he feels he's justified to continue to speak out about the dangers of climate change despite Bush Administration attempts to muzzle him. Now that those words are no longer in the mission statement, one wonders if Hansen will have less ground to stand on?

NASA's space-based assets such as satellites are vital in tracking climate change. Some of the world's most cutting edge weather and climate change research emanates from the Goddard Space Flight Center's laboratories, such as the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York that Hansen leads.

At the same time NASA changed its mission statement, the agency has also been reportedly slashing its Earth Science budget, presumably to make room for the budgetary behemoth that is President Bush's space exploration plan.

Currently, NASA comprises the greatest share of research dollars in the Climate Change Science Program's budget. According to a CCSP fact sheet available from Climate Science Watch, an advocacy group, NASA comprised about $1.32 billion of the $1.9 billion interagency CCSP in Fiscal Year 2004. That figure was expected to fall to $1.26 billion in FY '05, and $1.16 billion in FY '06. A different budget document shows an FY '07 request of $1.02 billion for NASA's share of the CCSP funding.

According to Climate Science Watch's Rick Piltz, NASA made a significant reduction in its FY '06 Earth Science budget from the budgeted amount.

The main components of President Bush's plan that have yet to be completed are to:
  • Complete the International Space Station and retire the Space Shuttle by 2010 begin robotic missions to the moon by 2008 and return people there by 2020;
  • continue robotic exploration of Mars and the Solar System;
  • and develop a Crew Exploration Vehicle and other technologies required to send people beyond low Earth orbit.
No one has made a convincing case as to why we're going back to the moon when we've already been. Are there new rides or something? That's the reason my family went back to Disney World multiple times. Or maybe astronauts left something there by accident?

Look for more on NASA budget priorities in the next congressional session.

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