The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Earth image
NASA has helped further studies of the Earth from space, but has the time come for other agencies and organizations to take over such research? (credit: NASA)

NASA and the case for Earth: a bad marriage

Ever since I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series back in the 1980s, I have been a loyal supporter of The Planetary Society, the world’s largest space interest group. However, it has been a support based on mixed feelings, I must admit. Back then, I had hoped to see the birth of a movement reflecting the same broad scientific, cultural, and philosophical issues covered by the TV series. Instead, to my deep sadness, the organization evolved into more traditional pro-space science advocacy.

Nevertheless, they have done many great things over the years, especially in regard to the unmanned space program. Some smaller question marks popped up when they initiated their “Save Our Science” campaign. When humankind finally got its clearance to reach for the stars again under the Vision for Space Exploration, I felt it would have been better to give NASA our full support rather than stirring up endless and delaying debates in Congress. But I accepted it. After all, the good folks in Pasadena are mostly scientists, so it was kind of expected!

The sheer size and importance of Earth science makes it impractical for it to be placed together with those programs aiming at new destinations in space.

But another, and much bigger, question mark popped up earlier this year. I read that The Planetary Society decided to add a phrase to their mission statement: to promote not only the exploration of other worlds, but also to understand our own planet, the Earth. It is a very noble goal, of course, and good for their image. What really concerns me is that it was added as a protest against NASA, which previously subtracted the very same phrase from its mission statement.

In this case, I applaud NASA’s decision, and not The Planetary Society’s. Why? Because I feel NASA’s action perfectly reflects the new focus that NASA should have, and what they, in the minds of ordinary people, always have been about: the exploration of other worlds, the reaching for new destinations beyond Earth. However, I am not rejecting the importance of Earth science and Earth observations. On the contrary, it is a statement in support of it.

Today, we’re experiencing a complete “Earth mania” due to the unfolding threats to our precious planet. Basically every citizen, corporation, and agency around the Western world tries to promote themselves as supporting the cause of saving our planet. NASA’s work has, of course, always been related to this cause. The knowledge we have gained by studying other worlds has been extremely important in understanding the Earth.

Now, however, the sheer size and importance of Earth science makes it impractical for it to be placed together with those programs aiming at new destinations in space. Moreover, it will limit the available resources. As long as Earth and space both are under NASA’s umbrella, there will continue to been never-ending fights for the money between the “Earth advocates” and “Space advocates” in the Congress, in the scientific community, and in society at large. These shifts back and forth between focuses have always been bad for both sides.

In the heyday of the early space age, “space” meant NASA. But times are changing. Low Earth orbit is becoming an extended part of our human sphere, just like the oceans and the atmosphere. Basically everyone from telecoms to tourist firms is using space in one way or another, just as they do on Earth. Space can no longer be handled as a single “topic” or “issue”: it affects all parts of human activity, just like changes in our Earth’s climate and environment also do.

In other words, you do no longer have to be NASA in order to work with space, or to be in Earth orbit. Agencies like NOAA have already been using space utilities for many years. The proper thing to do today would be to remove the entire “Earth part” from NASA, and place it in another—either new or existing—agency or institution. An agency with its own funding, and with no competition between various focuses, would be better both for the understanding of our Earth and for our reaching out to other worlds.

I would even go one step further, and argue that many other activities in low Earth orbit also should be removed from NASA. Most notably, this includes the International Space Station, and transportation to and from it. Already today, NASA sees a future where private firms provide most ISS-related transportation. ISS itself, with the scientific research being undertaken there, could also be handed over to other institutions. Congress has already taken a step in that direction by designating the US portion of the station as a national laboratory.

What about the science: wouldn’t it suffer from all these split-ups? I doubt it. As space is becoming a part of basically everything we humans do, this is a logical and natural development. We don’t have one aviation agency taking care of all airplane flights, and we don’t have one ocean agency taking care of all boat cruises or even oceanographic research. These activities are already split up among thousands of players.

An agency with its own funding, and with no competition between various focuses, would be better both for the understanding of our Earth and for our reaching out to other worlds.

The same should be true for all space-related activities. More organizations are likely to have bigger total resources and funding, and always be more focused on their respective field of interest, than one all-engulfing super-agency. However, normal scientific exchange among all relevant agencies and research institutions would still ensure that knowledge gained from NASA’s space exploration benefits the case for Earth—just as it already does.

Organizations like The Planetary Society are doing a great job. However, their perspectives occasionally seem a bit old-fashioned, as times are changing and old “truths” are no longer true. NASA is one of the foremost pathfinders of human civilization. It is about new destinations, about exploring places unexplored, not about doing all kinds of science for all kinds of reasons.

When a destination has been explored and starts to become an arena for utilization, activities there should be handled over to other players, each one efficiently focusing on their own respective tasks. Today, those places include Earth, its biosphere and atmosphere, LEO, as well as some other near-Earth locations. Some day it may include the Moon, and eventually even Mars. When people live and work relatively routinely on the Red Planet, it will be time for NASA to say bye-bye and set sail for the stars.

It’s time to make NASA truly out of this world—for the sake of the Earth.