Short Answer: Sometimes Both.
My astronaut father regularly tries to dissuade me from chiming in on politically-charged issues. It is advice I occasionally ignore. Yet, his rationale is usually right on target. He counsels me to let the true experts make the case, not the interested but less-informed opinion holders, like myself. He also notes that there is often nothing to be gained and much more to be lost by entering a contentious political debate. But there are a few times, when my interest level is piqued, my mastery of the knowledge is adequate and the fight worthy enough, such that I will jump in. Now is such a time.
Many of America's astronauts are deserving heroes. Many are brave, dedicated men and women who risked their lives and skillfully faced astonishing challenges which helped make the U.S. the leading space-faring nation. For this, many of them are deservedly celebrated.
Astronauts, by virtue of their rarity and inspirational value, have more of a bully pulpit than the general public. For some issues this has been well-earned and deserves our attention. Recently though there have been two such uses which I believe have been significantly misplaced and are hurting America's Space Program and the global understanding of real science. So I feel obligated to express my opinion about when these heroes should NOT be listened to.
First, there is the plan for NASA's future.
Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and James Lovell recently attacked NASA's new plan for space exploration as "grounding JFK's space legacy." They are wrong. They are stuck in old ways of thinking and not up to date on what is actually happening. Gone is the national imperative of the Cold War race to the moon. Gone are the days where huge portions of the civilian and military budgets were spent to prove our national superiority.
Today, I find myself in a position where I believe I am as much of an expert on the future of space exploration as these early heroes. I serve on the NASA Advisory Council, and am a member of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. I also own stakes in numerous aerospace companies, and recently have flown to space myself. This is a subject I know fairly well.
Now we must and can prove that exploration is actually worth the strategic investment. Boldly going beyond the Earth-Moon system is the next great task that beckons us. But, it will take more time and money than can be easily apportioned. We can no longer just assume the American people will pay for whatever these astronauts would like for us to do. We must develop plans that can survive economic cycles and political cycles. And that is what NASA is doing right now!
NASA's new plans will, in the next few decades send people far beyond Earth, and shepherd in a new golden age of human space exploration! I have written some about this in a previous iteration of this blog, and will provide even more detail soon.
Those trying to go back to the old ways of NASA, need to stop their complaining and get onboard to make way for the inevitable change that has already begun. They share the goal to see the expansion of exploration but must acknowledge the new economic and political realities we face. Resistance will not help usher in the sustainable future they desire!
Second issue: Astronauts weighing in on climate change
Recently a large number of astronauts co-signed a letter requesting that NASA not weigh in on human-caused climate change. These astronauts do not believe that the scientific evidence supports that assertion.
Astronauts are pretty smart people. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some astronauts were test pilots, some are scientists and some are even educators. Few (if any that I know) are climatologists. On the other hand, NASA does employ actual climatologists! The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has a large budget for aeronautical research including, specifically, climate change. I believe it is the job of these NASA scientists to do research, analyze data and make public their findings on the subject.
Astronauts are like everyone else -- a few believe in space aliens and ESP, but most do not. Many are religious. Others are not. Some are Republicans. Some are Democrats. Climate change, the human impact on it, and what if anything can be done about it, is potentially the most important scientific issue of our generation. To have NASA stand on the sidelines of the climate debate (as these astronauts who signed this letter have recommended) would be folly. More importantly, as this has become such a politicized issue these days, when a group of respected astronauts opposes NASA taking a stand on the subject, one should also consider the politics of those who make such recommendations.
Of course all data must be interpreted objectively, and all conclusions and assertions should be peer reviewed. There are many well-informed specialists on almost any subject one might imagine. Questioning results which might cause costly policy changes or actually endanger civilization is of course a high priority. But just because someone is famous and smart, is no reason to believe their claims.
I think I am likely as well informed as many of these naysayers, and likely smart enough to analyze the data I have seen. For the record, at this time I am a believer in "human causes of climate change." But you should not listen to me either! On this subject I admit that I am not an expert. If you want to read what the actual experts say, check out this link!
Just as my dad often advised me not to weigh in on politically hot topics without significant expertise on the issue, I would advise some astronauts to do the same. And when they do not, I would recommend readers take their words as no more relevant than the myriad of other non-experts they may know.