NASA junkies continue to howl at the Obama administration’s plans for human space exploration, and with good reason: there’s just no there there. Space partisans won’t be any happier with a 14-pg. policy statement released by the White House yesterday. (You can read a summery here at whitehouse.gov and download a PDF of the report.) But if there’s not much to cheer folks longing for a return to the moon, there’s plenty to keep greens happy.
This policy statement is written like most government policy statements—which is to say it’s vague and platitudinous—but buried in the pabulum are bits of real initiative. Yes, NASA will essentially be abdicating its role in manned spaceflight, and yes it will be relying on the private sector to get Americans back into orbit and beyond. And no, there’s no clear target for what “beyond” means, apart from a general idea that we might visit an asteroid sometime after 2025 and go to Mars sometime in the mid-2030s—though you’d be wise not to try to book now.
But then, on page 12, there’s this:
The NASA Administrator, in coordination with other appropriate departments and agencies, shall conduct a program to enhance U .S . global climate change research and sustained monitoring capabilities…and develop and test capabilities for use by other civil departments and agencies for operational purposes.
[The Secretary of Commerce shall] be responsible for the requirements, funding, acquisition, and operation of civil operational environmental satellites in support of weather forecasting, climate monitoring, ocean and coastal observations, and space weather forecasting.
[The Secretary of the Interior, through the US Geological Survey shall] conduct research on natural and human-induced changes to Earth’s land, land cover, and inland surface waters, and manage a global land surface data national archive and its distribution.
The statement goes into greater detail throughout, recruiting other branches of government—including the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security—in the space-enviro mission. And the President’s budget projections, which actually call for small increases in NASA funding despite the end of the shuttle program and the overall downsizing of manned exploration, provide the bucks to back up the plans.
It was 42 years ago that the crew of Apollo 8 took the iconic earthrise photo that is credited with having helped launch the green movement by showing people how fragile the planet looks in the void of space. Even people who long to go back have to be happy that we’re remaining true to at least this bit of NASA’s legacy.