Friday, February 19, 2010

President Obama has announced a major shift at NASA - canceling President George W. Bush’s 2004 plan to return astronauts to the moon and then move on to Mars. Instead, the Democratic administration is focusing the space program on climate research and unmanned missions. The president’s budget gives the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a hefty $6 billion budget increase over the next five years, with nearly $2.5 billion dedicated to research on global climate change.

It is evident that while manned spaceflight has moved to the back burner (protesters at the Johnson Space Center put it more crudely - “Obama lied; NASA died”) the winners in the new NASA budget are the climate-change theoreticians.

They have long been ascendant inside the agency. When the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in Oslo to Al Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA’s hand in the IPCC’s work was revealed.

Hundreds of NASA scientists contributed to the U.N. effort, the culmination of two decades of work. NASA satellite measurements enabled the IPCC’s “strongest conclusions thus far,” according to the chief scientist at the Joint Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who was further quoted: “NASA’s role extends far beyond space-based measurements into the research to build our understanding of climate change, enabling the critical work of the IPCC. … By collecting together the current scientific thinking on climate change, the IPCC showed the world the value of the type of science we are doing at NASA.”

NASA scientist James E. Hansen, one of Mr. Gore’s closest allies in promoting fears of man-made global warming, was deemed by the London Telegraph as “more responsible than any other for the alarm over global warming” - setting “the whole scare in train back in 1988 with testimony to a U.S. Senate committee chaired by Al Gore.”

Mr. Hansen has since been publicly rebuked by a former supervisor, retired senior NASA atmospheric scientist John Theon, who says Mr. Hansen “embarrassed NASA” with alarmist claims. The charge rings all the more true as the IPCC reels from disclosures that scientists involved hid and manipulated data, tried to stop scientists who disagreed from publishing in peer-reviewed journals and allowed alarmist mistakes into the scientific document.

But Mr. Hansen has gone far beyond alarmism into activism, calling for trials of oil company executives for “crimes against humanity” and flying to England in 2008 to testify in a trial of Greenpeace eco-vandals. Mr. Hansen claimed Greenpeace’s vandals were protecting property around the world by destroying property that caused pollution in England. He was arrested in June 2009 protesting at a West Virginia coal-processing plant.

It is activism, not science, that the Obama administration’s vast new funding will encourage. Atmospheric scientist Joanne Simpson, formerly with NASA and the first woman to earn a doctorate in meteorology, joined the growing ranks of warming doubters: “Since I am no longer affiliated with any organization nor receiving any funding, I can speak quite frankly. … As a scientist, I remain skeptical. … The main basis of the claim that man’s release of greenhouse gases is the cause of the warming is based almost entirely upon climate models. We all know the frailty of models concerning the air-surface system.”

Could Ms. Simpson not have aired such views while in federal service? Richard S. Lindzen, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests the answer is no: “Scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their funds disappear, their work derided, and themselves labeled as industry stooges.”

When scientists can no longer speak their minds, that’s when an agency crosses the line from disinterested science to political activism.

Former astronauts are also rebuking Mr. Hansen. Astronaut-geologist Jack Schmitt (Apollo 17) proclaimed that “the ‘global warming scare’ is used as a political tool to increase government control over American lives, incomes and decision-making. It has no place in the [Geological Society of America’s] activities.” Another astronaut, physicist Walter Cunningham (Apollo 7) chastised Mr. Hansen as a “political activist who spreads fear even when NASA’s own data contradict him.

“NASA should be at the forefront in the collection of scientific evidence and debunking the current hysteria over human-caused, or Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). Unfortunately, it is becoming just another agency caught up in the politics of global warming, or worse, politicized science,” Mr. Cunningham wrote in 2008.

Mr. Gore once compared global-warming skeptics to people who “believe the moon landing was actually staged in a movie lot in Arizona.” While some poke fun at Mr. Gore’s home electricity usage (reportedly 20 times higher than that of an average U.S. household) and point out the contradiction of liberals refusing to adopt “lifestyle changes” they wish to impose on others through taxing schemes such as “cap and trade,” such criticism misses the deeper problem. That is government agencies being engaged in dangerous mission creep, vast taxpayer resources being exploited to propagate politics above science, and global-warming activists being rewarded with funding increases to the detriment of NASA’s celebrated astronaut corps.

According to the Congressional Research Service, NASA’s peak funding during the Apollo program occurred in fiscal 1966, when total funding was $4.5 billion (in current dollars), of which $3 billion went to the Apollo program. NASA doesn’t lack funding for manned spaceflight - it has diverted too much funding over the years to climate change and other priorities outside its core mission. NASA needs to return to the original goals that captured Americans’ imaginations and built the agency in the first place.

Margaret Hemenway is a former NASA official who writes from Alexandria, Va.

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