Failure is an Option: NASA, Astronauts and Global Warming

The Mercury Seven: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton

Back in the day, astronauts understood the difference between rocket pilots and rocket scientists. And so did the public.

[trust me, I’m a doctor]
Would you go to an auto mechanic if your computer had a virus? An auto mechanic is, after all, a technically competent person who has technical skills.

But I’m guessing not.  Unless the auto mechanic was also a serious computer hobbyist.  If you want specialist answers, you’d go to a specialist. And not just any specialist.  A specialist in the specialty that you need a special person for.

Seems obvious, right?

So it’s funny how last week a group of 49 ex-NASA employees decided they were specialists in climatology – simply because they worked at NASA – and wrote a letter to the NASA Administrator (i.e. the Grand Pooh-Bah of NASA) worried about how NASA’s statements on climate studies might make NASA look.  My favorite part is this paragraph:

As former NASA employees, we feel that NASA’s advocacy of an extreme position, prior to a thorough study of the possible overwhelming impact of natural climate drivers is inappropriate. We request that NASA refrain from including unproven and unsupported remarks in its future releases and websites on this subject. At risk is damage to the exemplary reputation of NASA, NASA’s current or former scientists and employees, and even the reputation of science itself.

Wow.  “The reputation of science itself”???  Quick!  Science is under attack from…


No wonder it’s hard to figure out who to root for.

By the way, would you go to your neighborhood vet to get a diagnosis on your medical health?  After all, both are trained in the life sciences of mammals.

Back to NASA. First, a little perspective:  NASA’s statements on climate studies don’t come nearly as close to embarrassing the agency as

  1. losing a spacecraft and astronauts’ lives due to ignoring engineering advice and putting politics before safety
  2. losing a spacecraft and astronauts’ lives due to ignoring engineering advice and putting politics before safety

Secondly, NASA’s statements are based on science.  Yep.  By specialists in the field.  Yep.  Some of them are even employed by NASA.  Yep.

In fact, there is essentially universal agreement that we humans are really fouling our own petri dish.  What do I mean by “universal”?  How about 97.4% of the professional climatologists in a recent survey? And the data sets that provide this evidence have been among the most scrutinized of all.  In fact, even those professional people in climatology on the skeptical fringe (and there are always people in any field of science on the skeptical fringe) are now agreeing with the near-unanimous majority.

So who are these brave ex-NASA employees, willing to argue with the professionals in the field, worried about NASA’s statements?  Top men:

Because once you work at NASA, you understand everything about space ‘n’ planets ‘n’ cool ‘n’ groovy sciencey stuff.  I once heard that they gave the janitor at a NASA facility the task of designing the heat shield on the Gemini capsule because, you know, NASA only employs rocket scientists, even for cleaning the toilets!  It reminds me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz where you give someone a piece of paper, call it a diploma, and suddenly they become a sooper-genius:

Well, the Scarecrow didn’t exactly get the formula right but you get the idea.

In reality, NASA does have actual planetary scientists professionally studying atmospheric CO2 (among other things) on their staff.  These scientists are located primarily at two NASA locations:  the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  I just skimmed the list of signatories on the NASA letter. Not one signer comes from either of these two places.  In fact, a few signers come from NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC and the rest come from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.

From the Johnson Space Center’s website:

Johnson Space Center was established in 1961 as the Manned Spacecraft Center.  In 1973, the Center was renamed in honor of the late President and Texas native, Lyndon B. Johnson. From the early Gemini, Apollo and Skylab projects to today’s [sic] Space Shuttle and International Space Station Programs, the Center continues to lead NASA’s efforts in human space exploration.

In other words, don’t expect to find anyone on this list that does Earth science for a living — because that’s not what Johnson Space Center does.  Needless to say, the few NASA Headquarters people on the signatory list are professional bureaucrats; you don’t move high up in a government organization without career commitment to the exclusion of all else… like being a practicing professional scientist.

In fact, without the astronaut names, this letter would not have been much of a story.  Who cares about a bunch of engineering or science types unless they are fast becoming millionaires billionaires in Silicon Valley, right? The media knew this… and so did the astronauts.

That’s why they used their names on this letter.

So it seems perfectly fair to examine each and every astronaut on this signatory list and see if he (because these astronauts are so old they are from a time when all astronauts were “he”) is qualified to get any media time on perhaps the most important scientific issue facing our species. It has been said that “Old astronauts don’t die, they just become space cadets.”  With that in mind, let’s see if these astronauts have the “right stuff”: the educational or professional backgrounds to make such informed and noteworthy decisions on climate science. Proceeding alphabetically:

Dr. Phillip K. Chapman.  Nice: a PhD from MIT. Not so nice:  the PhD is in Instrumentation.  Instrumentation is rocket science, not earth science.  But here’s the really fun part:  the guy didn’t even travel in a rocket — he quit NASA before he was on a mission!  Uh… as any astronaut will tell you, you ain’t an Astronaut until you actually fly.  He may be the only person on the letter’s list to not even be an expert in the area after his name, let alone an expert in planet climatology. Off to a flying start, aren’t we?

Walter Cunningham. Cunningham flew on the Apollo 7 mission. This was the mission designed to get the space program back on track after the Apollo 1 disaster — another tragedy that cost NASA some of its reputation…  that Cunningham apparently forgot about. Cunningham is a particularly interesting astronaut as he and his crewmates got rather cranky during their flight, argued with mission control, and were banned from future NASA spaceflight as a result.   Of course, that has nothing to do with his expertise in planetary science, so let’s look at his credentials.  Cunningham has a  BA and MA in physics and has “completed work on Doctorate in Physics with exception of thesis.”  Is he kidding?  Dude, a PhD without a thesis is like an “astronaut” without a flight.  Go talk with Dr. Chapman.

Charlie Duke. Apollo 16 astronaut who walked on the Moon. Cool.  Doesn’t mean he knows about lunar science.  I’m sure he’s walked on Earth.  Doesn’t mean he knows about Earth science. Has an MS in Aeronautics from MIT. That gives him credentials in planes not planets.  No wonder he became an astronaut and not a scientist.

Dick Gordon.  Definitely an astronaut, a brave man who flew to the Moon on Apollo 12 and was stuck just orbiting it while his two crewmates got to walk on it.  No problem: he was slated to command Apollo 18 and that would give him his chance to become a lunar rover.  Too bad Apollo 18 was cancelled because of funding issues.  Ouch.  I bet that smarted his aviator’s ego.  Well, let’s check for advanced degrees. Any?  Nope, totally committed to a naval aviator’s career.  Let’s put it this way:  I’d want to listen to Dick Gordon discuss Earth science about as much as he’d want me to fly him in a F-4 Phantom II.

Dr. Ed Gibson.  Gibson was part of NASA’s fourth astronaut group, dubbed “The Scientists” because their backgrounds were actually in — ta-dah! — science!  Gibson has a doctorate from Caltech — in engineering.  Whoops! Engineering?  Studied mainly propulsion for his thesis.  Well, makes sense if you are going to be an astronaut.  But, it turns out, Gibson actually did some real science on his Skylab mission.  His expertise?  The Sun.  The Sun is sort of like the Earth… only it’s on fire.  Maybe that’s why Gibson doesn’t support the climatologists’ claims on the causes of global warming.  After you study the Sun, the Earth must seem like a pretty cold place.

Dr. Joseph Kerwin. Kerwin also flew on Skylab.  So he’s a real astronaut.  And he’s a real doctor.   The kind with tongue depressors and lollipops for children. Still: on Skylab, he spent a lot of time looking at Earth.  I’ve looked at a lot of humans.  Doesn’t make me a doctor.  I’m sure Dr. Kerwin — a real doctor — would agree. Same way that looking at Earth doesn’t make you a climatologist. That’s the part that Dr. Kerwin doesn’t get.  Maybe he thinks the data is doctored.

Dr. Christopher C. Kraft. It’s true Dr. Kraft is not an astronaut per se, but if anyone could be given the title of Honorary Astronaut it would have to be him.  He practically invented the way space missions and their operations unfold, is among the 3 most important people in getting us to the Moon (along with Dr. Wernher von Braun and James Webb), and is a luminary in anything NASA.  So we’ll include him on this list.  Now, let’s check his credentials. Despite listing himself as “Dr.” on his signature, he only obtained a BS in aeronautical engineering.   It’s turns out the “Dr.” is merely from honorary degrees.  Seriously? Hell, even Walter Cunningham completed the coursework for a PhD… and he didn’t bother to mislead the public behind a phony title.  Dr. Kraft… I mean Mister Kraft… apparently didn’t feel his name and stature alone provided enough authority to be considered expert in this area where (admittedly) he has zero expertise.  And he is big on the concept of expertise.  As Dr. Mr. Kraft wrote in his autobiography,

My flight controllers and I were a lot closer to the systems and to events than anyone in top management. From now on, I swore, they’d play hell before they overruled any decision I made.

In other words, there’s no need to consider outside people (like Dr. Mr. Kraft) who aren’t close to the problem (like professional climatologists).  A pity he couldn’t be bothered to apply his wise dictum to himself.  He certainly knew how to apply it when astronauts like Walter Cunningham got cranky and crossed his expert Flight Directors since it was Dr. Mr. Kraft who was instrumental in getting these astronauts grounded for life.  And anyway, what business does Dr. Mr. Kraft have in worrying about NASA’s reputation when it was his own government-commissioned (and highly influential) 1995 Kraft report that criticized NASA’s culture of safety post-Challenger explosion as “duplicative and expensive”?  (Tell that to families of the Columbia astronauts.)   You’ve done enough, Dr. Mr. Kraft. Have you no sense of hubris, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of hubris?  I’d label you as the largest disappointment on this list, Dr. Mr. Kraft, but that honor belongs to:

Dr. Harrison Schmitt.  Both a rocket man and a rock man. Like Gibson and Kerwin, Schmitt was part of the astronaut-scientist group — a bona fide geologist with a PhD from Harvard.  And like Gordon, he was assigned to the crew of Apollo 18  —  until the mission was cancelled.  At that point something very interesting happened.  The science community deemed they needed to have a real, professional geologist explore the lunar terrain — not just test pilots who had been given a little geology training by Schmitt himself.  Why?  Because you always want a professional scientist with the proper scientific expertise to be doing your scientific investigations.  As a result, Schmitt — the only professional geologist in the astronaut corps — was reassigned from the cancelled Apollo 18 mission onto Apollo 17, the last mission to the Moon.  (Gordon, a mere astronaut-pilot, wasn’t reassigned.)

This point is worth making again:  Schmitt got to walk on the Moon only because he (and other scientists) argued you needed a real geologist to do real geology.

So, if you need a real geologist to evaluate geologic data, doesn’t it stand to reason that you need a real climatologist to evaluate climate data?

Schmitt has apparently no sense of irony in attaching his signature on this letter.

In fact, none of the signatories do.  In fact, the largest irony is that these individuals — even the astronauts — are really “nobodies” as polling indicates that barely half of all Americans can even name the first man to walk on the Moon.  In fact, without these signatories being labeled “ex-NASA,” their own names carry little authority to sway the American public.  In fact, these signatories — who are so worried about NASA’s reputation — are, in fact, living off that same NASA reputation.

In fact, these individuals are the ones tarnishing NASA’s reputation.

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2 thoughts on “Failure is an Option: NASA, Astronauts and Global Warming

  1. Exemplary.

  2. […] I’m as green as the next guy with foot fungus.  I’ve written about the environment before and before that.  But the numbers – about which the contrarians apparently know nothing – […]

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