Calling Orwell: Understanding and protecting planet Earth disappears from NASA mission statement


NASA has deleted from its mission statement what had previously been its opening phrase:  “To understand and protect our home planet.”  This particular example of Orwellian behavior by administration officials was called to our attention by Jim Hansen of NASA and was reported in today’s (July 22) New York Times

Andrew Revkin of the Times reported (archived, copyright 2006 New York Times):

From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers … as only NASA can.”

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted. In this year’s budget and planning documents, the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

David E. Steitz, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said the aim was to square the statement with President Bush’s goal of pursuing human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars.

NASA scientists told the Times the change is part of downgrading the priority of understanding climate change and other terrestrial issues:

[T]he change comes as an unwelcome surprise to many NASA scientists, who say the “understand and protect” phrase was not merely window dressing but actively influenced the shaping and execution of research priorities. Without it, these scientists say, there will be far less incentive to pursue projects to improve understanding of terrestrial problems like climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions….

The shift in language echoes a shift in the agency’s budgets toward space projects and away from earth missions, a shift that began in 2004, the year Mr. Bush announced his vision of human missions to the Moon and beyond.

The “understand and protect” phrase was cited repeatedly by James E. Hansen, a climate scientist at NASA who said publicly last winter that he was being threatened by political appointees for speaking out about the dangers posed by greenhouse gas emissions….

Dr. Hansen said the change might reflect White House eagerness to shift the spotlight away from global warming….“They’re making it clear that…they prefer that NASA work on something that’s not causing them a problem, he said.

In addition to Hansen, Revkin’s article quotes one other NASA scientist on the record commenting on the significance of the mission statement in expressing and influencing research priorities.  Our thanks to Philip B. Russell, a 25-year NASA veteran at the Ames Research Center in California for standing up on this one.  We wish there were many more federal scientists and program managers who would begin to overcome the deadening silence of the career professsionals in shedding light on administration actions to play down the global warming problem.

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