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At NASA, Earth is Removed from Mission Statement

In February 2006, the phrase "to understand and protect the home planet" was quietly removed from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)'s official mission statement. Because agency mission statements are routinely used to justify research and funding decisions, many scientists were not only surprised to discover the change, but also concerned that the change meant more funding would be shifted away from studies of Earth, including climate change research, and redirected to NASA's planned new series of manned space missions.

A NASA atmospheric chemist commented, “We refer to the mission statement in all our research proposals that go out for peer review…as civil servants, we’re paid to carry out NASA’s mission. When there was that very easy-to-understand statement that our job is to protect the planet that made it much easier to justify this kind of work.”1  NASA scientists responding to a Union of Concerned Scientists survey also expressed concerns that changing priorities and lack of funding were seriously undermining the agency’s ability to continue with high-quality research into climate change.2 

The agency’s current mission statement calls on the agency “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”3  It is the first time since NASA’s founding in 1958 that the mission statement does not explicitly include mention of the Earth. A NASA spokesperson was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the mission statement was rewritten “to square the statement with President Bush’s goal of pursuing human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars.”4 

Scientists’ funding fears are already more than hypothetical. A 2006 report by the National Research Council (NRC, a part of the National Academy of Sciences), noted that funding cuts currently in place at NASA will mean canceling or not replacing several of the agency’s Earth observation satellites. This will, in the words of the NRC report, cause a “severe deficit” in Earth observation capabilities and compromise the government’s ability to “fulfill its obligations in . . . [the] Climate Change Science Program”5 

NASA’s previous mission statement was adopted in 2002 in an open process with input from across NASA’s 19,000 employees. In contrast, NASA researchers said the new mission was revised with no discussion or public announcement of any kind.6 

1. Revkin, A.C. “NASA’s Goals delete mention of home planet,” New York Times, July 22, 2006.
2. Union of Concerned Scientists and Government Accountability Project, 2007. Atmosphere of Pressure, p.22.
3. 2006 NASA Strategic Plan.  NASA Mission Statement on p. 3.  Accessed March 8, 2007.
4. Revkin.
5. National Research Council, 2006. Space studies board annual report 2005. Washington D.C.
6. Revkin.

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