NASA Administrator Mike Griffin set off a firestorm of criticism over his remarks on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” concerning global warming. Admired by many, including me, for his blunt and direct talk, Griffin went overboard this time by being unnecessarily provocative.

He first suggested that “to assume that [global warming] is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate.” He followed by asking “which human beings … are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings?”

What was he thinking? Was he assuming a philosophical position questioning the definition of “best” or “optimal?” Was he suggesting that human pollution modifying Earth’s climate is just part of nature takings its course? Or was he just intellectually toying with his audience, not thinking about the impact of his words? Unfortunately he did this during a week when his boss, U.S. President George W. Bush, finally acknowledged the need to combat the global warming caused by human-generated pollution.

It might be reasonable to accept that this was only a faux pas by a blunt, bright guy who likes to be unconventional. Indeed, Griffin has expressed regret about his comments. But that misses a greater point – this was a major opportunity to promote his agency, the U.S. space program

and their value to the public at large. He downplayed one of NASA’s most valued and widely recognized functions – teaching us about our own planet and monitoring it from the unique vantage of space. In doing so, Griffin also undermined public support for his most cherished program – the Vision for Space Exploration.

Griffin’s misstep came during the interview when he was questioned about criticism of NASA by columnist Gregg Easterbrook. According to Easterbrook, NASA should revise its priorities and focus on studying the Earth rather than on the human exploration of other worlds. Griffin was asked the following question: “It has been mentioned that NASA is not spending as much money as it could to study climate change – global warming – from space. Are you concerned about global warming?”

For Griffin, this was a perfect opportunity to both tout NASA’s leadership in studying the Earth and emphasize the importance of exploring other worlds. He could have said, “Of course I am concerned – global warming is widely recognized as a major issue, one that will affect everyone on the planet. NASA leads the world in gathering data on this subject – not just with our many Earth-observing satellites, but also with our large research and analysis program. In fact, our knowledge and understanding of global warming come from not just our Earth satellites, but also from observing the processes at work on other planets – especially Venus and Mars.”

Griffin also could have used the opportunity to make a strong case for more funding for NASA. He could have said: “I very much support the U.S. National Research Council recommendation for more Earth observations and would be delighted to work with the Congress on securing the necessary resources, so that we don’t have to cut science or observation programs.”

Would he have been fired for saying this? I doubt it. And who exactly would criticize him for it? Perhaps some unnamed bureaucrat angry that Griffin had suggested he needed more money than the administration had given him. But, the NASA administrator position is too prominent and distinguished an office to fear that kind of petty worry.

What Griffin should have explained to Easterbrook is that the Vision for Space Exploration is not just a rocket program or an exercise in putting humans in space. That was the space shuttle. The

vision is

– or at least was when first proposed

– a program that encompasses both science and human exploration of the planets, including the study and understanding of the Earth.

Griffin should have learned from a previous public relations mistake – when “understanding the Earth” was dropped from NASA’s mission statement. Because of popular interest in this goal, The Planetary Society has picked up the dropped phrase and put it into our mission statement: “exploring other worlds, understanding our own, and seeking life elsewhere.” Learning more about ourselves is a fundamental part of why we humans explore.

We believe the public has no problem linking human space exploration with the advancement of space and Earth science. Science and understanding are the reasons why humans explore, and human exploration inspires people to pursue the scientific study of other worlds. Griffin has shied away from linking exploration and science for the past two years, as seen by his defense of the extreme cuts to science in NASA. He should answer the criticisms of Easterbrook and others not by rejecting their earthly concerns, but by embracing them and placing them in the broader context of planetary exploration.

Louis Friedman is executive director of the Planetary Society.