Replace Michael Griffin with a reality-based NASA leader who puts Earth Science first

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Outgoing NASA Administrator Michael Griffin’s notion that Earthlings might someday flee an uninhabitable Earth to find safe haven on another planet in the galaxy makes for good science fiction, but probably should not characterize the mindset of the head of the nation’s space agency as a way of justifying the need for astronauts.  President Obama should replace the departing Griffin with a diffferent kind of leader—one who relates competently to climate science and places a high priority on strengthening NASA’s Earth Science program, rather than allowing it to deteriorate while pursuing a mad vision of colonizing outer space with “American culture.” 

During the tenure of Michael Griffin as Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, cost overruns and delays in the human space flight program and the shifting of NASA’s priorities to satisfy President Bush’s emphasis on planning to send astronauts to Mars went hand in hand with the deterioration of NASA’s program to study Planet Earth—cuts in the agency’s Earth Science budget, the degradation of the satellite-based climate observing system, and even the deletion from NASA’s official mission statement of the idea of protecting our home planet. 

In May 2007 Griffin was justifiably criticized for making cavalier, ill-informed comments about global climate change.  In an interview with National Public Radio, Griffin said:

Whether [global warming] is a long-term concern or not, I can’t say.  I have no doubt that…a trend of global warming exists, I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with.  To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had….I guess I would ask which human beings—where and when—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. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.

NASA’s Jim Hansen called Griffin’s statement “incredibly ignorant and arrogant.”

We wondered why Griffin’s earlier statements from a September 2005 interview with the Washington Post were not also brought to light for closer public scrutiny, as they are even stranger than his comments on global warming.  Griffin actually said:

I’m talking about that one day, I don’t know when that day is, but there will be more human beings who live off the Earth than on it. We may well have people living on the moon. We may have people living on the moons of Jupiter and other planets. We may have people making habitats on asteroids. We’ve got places that humans will go, not in our lifetime, but they will go there….

I don’t know the date—but I know that humans will colonize the solar system and one day go beyond. And it is important for me that humans who carry—I’ll characterize it as Western values—are there with them….

I’m not trying to stomp other people into the ground, but I would like to be assured that wherever the frontier of human civilization is, that people from America are there as well….It should be viewed as an investment in carrying American culture, American values.

(More on this below.)

In subsequent posts we will discuss the urgent need to strengthen NASA’s Earth environmental look-down capability, and we will have questions for whomever President Obama nominates to replace Griffin.  Essentially, we believe that the roughly 10% of the NASA budget that goes to support Earth Science is the most important component of the agency’s budget.  It is the component that provides vital data for understanding the dynamics of the Earth system and how human activities are affecting it.  This part of NASA’s work has been undercut during the Bush administration—a state of affairs that might be seen as shocking, but on the other hand not surprising.  Michael Griffin’s attention has been directed elsewhere, downplaying the problem of global climate disruption while he pursued the mad vision of colonizing outer space with American cultural values.

Second in priority we would put instrumented Space Science—the Hubble Telescope and a fascinating array of other instruments for looking out into the Solar System and beyond.  We would include the Mars Lander instruments in this category. 

Human space flight, the largest component in the NASA budget and the one with the most substantial backing from politicians and corporate contractors, as well as the one that receives the greatest attention from the public and the media, we would assign lowest priority to.  The distances are just too great.  But one way or the other, under no circumstances should the cost of human space flight be allowed to cannibalize what used to be called Mission to Planet Earth—before the NASA leadership started to turn its back on it. 

In 2006 NASA eliminated the promise “to understand and protect our home planet” from its mission statement:

That statement was repeatedly cited last winter by NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who said he was being threatened by political appointees for speaking about the dangers posed by greenhouse gas emissions.

But NASA officials told The New York Times the elimination of the phrase that was used by Hansen was “pure coincidence.” The statement now proclaims the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

A NASA spokesman said the change brings the agency into line with U.S. President George W. Bush’s goal of pursuing human spaceflight to the moon and Mars.

One observer noted results from NASA’s increasing involvement in monitoring the Earth’s environment have sparked political disputes concerning the Bush administration’s environmental policies.

Hansen said the elimination of the phrase involving protecting the planet might reflect a White House desire to shift the spotlight away from global warming.

He told The Times: “They’re making it clear that they … prefer that NASA work on something that’s not causing them a problem.”

Copyright 2006 by United Press International

More from the Washington Post interview with Michael Griffin:

NASA’s Griffin: ‘Humans Will Colonize the Solar System’

Sunday, September 25, 2005; B07

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin met last week with reporters and editors at The Post. Here are some of the questions and answers:

What can humans learn in space that robots couldn’t?

The thing that you can learn with humans in scientific enterprises are all of the things that you didn’t send the robot to find out. With a human you’re doing the opportunistic plan, the uncorrelated observation. You know, you see this over here and that over there, and you put them together.

When you know what question you want to ask and what measurement you want to make, it’s almost always to your advantage to do that robotically or, at most, use the human to put the thing in place. There’s no question about it. When you don’t know what you don’t know, when you don’t know what the questions are, we do very poorly at attempting to figure out what those questions ought to be by using robots.

But the goal isn’t just scientific exploration . . . it’s also about extending the range of human habitat out from Earth into the solar system as we go forward in time. . . . In the long run a single-planet species will not survive. We have ample evidence of that . . . [Species have] been wiped out in mass extinctions on an average of every 30 million years.

But are there examples of multiple-planet species?

We don’t know of any other species anywhere, but while I cannot say that multiple-planet species will survive, I think I can prove to you from our own geologic record that single-planet species don’t.

Now, you know, in the sense that a chicken is just an egg’s way of laying another egg, one of our purposes is to survive and thrive and spread humankind. I think that’s worth doing. There will be another mass-extinction event. If we humans want to survive for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, we must ultimately populate other planets. Now, today the technology is such that this is barely conceivable. We’re in the infancy of it.

So you’re actually talking about a community on Mars that has a large enough population and can sustain itself for thousands of years anticipating this event?

Not necessarily. I’m talking about that one day, I don’t know when that day is, but there will be more human beings who live off the Earth than on it. We may well have people living on the moon. We may have people living on the moons of Jupiter and other planets. We may have people making habitats on asteroids. We’ve got places that humans will go, not in our lifetime, but they will go there.

Is it important that Americans lead the way?

To me it’s important because I like the United States, and because I know—I don’t know the date—but I know that humans will colonize the solar system and one day go beyond. And it is important for me that humans who carry—I’ll characterize it as Western values—are there with them.

You know, I think we know the kind of society we would get if you, for example, carry Soviet values. That means you want a gulag on Mars. Is that what you’re looking for?

Given the laws of physics and the distances involved, where is the place “beyond the solar system” we could go?

Well, I mean, there are other stars in our near neighborhood . . . four light-years away . . . 12 light-years away.

Is it a concern that you believe that others will get there first?

I don’t know that it’s a concern that others get there first. What does concern me is that where other people go, the United States must also be. I’m not trying to stomp other people into the ground, but I would like to be assured that wherever the frontier of human civilization is, that people from America are there as well. . . . It should be viewed as an investment in carrying American culture, American values.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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