Last month, NASA Chief Administrator Mike Griffin went on Public Radio (the radio show Morning Edition) and caused a bit of a ruckus when he said “to assume that [global warming] is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate.” and then asked the question “which human beings … are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings?”
It might be reasonable to accept that this was only a faux pas by a blunt, bright guy who likes to be unconventional. Indeed, Griffin has expressed regret about his comments. But that misses a greater point – this was a major opportunity to promote his agency, the U.S. space program and their value to the public at large. He downplayed one of NASA’s most valued and widely recognized functions – teaching us about our own planet and monitoring it from the unique vantage of space. In doing so, Griffin also undermined public support for his most cherished program – the Vision for Space Exploration.
Um, yeah. That’s space exploration. The Earth is in the opposite direction.
And that’s been the problem. Ever since the Apollo astronauts turned their cameras around and took the first famous “big, blue marble” photo of the Earth, the photo that inspired the first Earth Day (and, not coincidently, Al Gore) NASA has been floundering. With few exceptions, the agency has been unable to answer one simple question: “What should it do next?” The so called Mission to Planet Earth (full disclosure – it kept me employed for about 2 years) was what school children call make-work. It felt that way from the inside, too. Oh, there was stuff to be done, and even science to be had, even while earth-pointing. But it was still make-work.
Griffin need not have apologized. He was correct to point out that global-warming hysteria flows from the deadly sin of pride (and it’s close associate, arrogance). He was, of course, too polite to spell it out so rudely as I. Moreover, Friedman is simply wrong to assert that NASA’s mission is in part (or in whole) to teach us about Planet Earth, or that this is a particularly valuable function of NASA. It is not. AURA does it better, as it should, by charter. Indeed, little of what NASA does is (or should be) of direct value – let Burt Rutan find a profit in space. That’s his mission and goal. I applaud his courage and entrepreneurship.
And the direction that NASA should be looking is outward.