NASA’s long-confused mission was evident today -- Earth Day 2014 -- when Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. keynoted a conference about Mars, the red planet, before zipping across downtown Washington to give a speech about the blue-green one.
The search for NASA's singular post cold-war or even post-Nixon identity has been op-ed fodder for years -- be it "black hole budgets" (2008), post-Moon wins (1998) or skewed priorities in (1981), to name just three. It's still lively to talk about. The writer Charles Seife took a bite out of the agency in February, asking "What Is NASA for?" at Slate.com.
Fortunately, there's a simple answer.
NASA's official vision in the 21st century should be to explore life's origin and its future. Full stop. Manned exploration of the Solar System was a dream for baby boomers when they were kids. Our kids deserve something no less inspirational and even more practical. Charity starts at home, not Mars.
In his Mars speech, Bolden made the case for why the history of Mars is important for understanding the history of Earth. He doesn’t successfully make the case that sending humans is a more effective way to study it than sending, say, mass spectrometers. Recent reports suggest that robots will be taking over many of our jobs in coming decades; they already have a breathtaking record on Mars.
“What we learn about the Red Planet may tell us more about our own home planet’s history and future,” he said, “and help us answer a fundamental human question: Does life exist beyond Earth?”
An "explore life's past and future" vision statement would cover a lot of ground. It’s vague, and a little confounding, which is important because bureaucracies always seem to like their statements vague and a little confounding. It also constrains NASA’s work in a way that celebrates life and avoids the costs and risks of sending humans to other orbs.
The past is well-covered in NASA research, from Big Bang physics through life’s early eons.
The phrase "explore the future" seems weird enough that a federal agency might come up with it and yet nimble enough to encompass what we’re really interested in, planetary health. NASA is one of the world's critical centers for monitoring Earth's life-support systems, its surface, oceans, core and atmosphere, which famously, is running a temperature. The continental U.S. has warmed nearly half a degree fahrenheit on average since the first Earth Day, in 1970, according to research from Climate Central.
The future is even trickier than the past. No one can predict the future, which is why scientists talk instead about projections or simulations. An Earth Day blog post at Bolden's NASA blog touts five major Earth science initiatives this year, probing climate, weather, water and sea levels. "NASA research yields down-to-earth benefits such as improved environmental prediction, preparing for natural hazards, and anticipating the impacts of climate change," he writes.
Bolden’s speech this morning at the Humans 2 Mars Summit is put on by Explore Mars, a non-profit founded to help speed human arrivals to the red planet, and "to embed the idea of Mars as a habitable planet" in the classroom.
NASA’s first order of business should be to embed in classrooms the idea of Earth as a habitable planet.
More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter):
- It's OK to support nuclear power and still enjoy a movie now and then
- Titanic climate documentary makes reporters out of Hollywood elite
- What climate change means in dollars and cents
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