New York Times Fans Global Warming Film Controversy with NASA Memos

By Keith Cowing
April 25, 2004
Filed under ,
New York Times Fans Global Warming Film Controversy with NASA Memos

On May 28th the disaster film “The Day After Tomorrow” will premiere. The premise is that global warming will lead to a catastrophic alteration in Earth’s climate and the ensuing chaos will threaten human society.

Global warming – its causes and it consequences – is a topic that many people have a deep philosophical attachment to – either embracing it or disputing it – often with a ferocity that matches the events portrayed in this film. That schism seems is at the heart of an article that appeared in this weekend’s online and print versions of the New York Times.

In an article titled “NASA Curbs Comments on Ice Age Disaster Movie“, the New York Times says

“But the prospect that moviegoers will be alarmed enough to blame the Bush administration for inattention to climate change has stirred alarm at the space agency, scientists there say. “No one from NASA is to do interviews or otherwise comment on anything having to do with” the film, said the April 1 message, which was sent by Goddard’s top press officer. “Any news media wanting to discuss science fiction vs. science fact about climate change will need to seek comment from individuals or organizations not associated with NASA.” Copies of the message, and the one from NASA headquarters to which it referred, were provided to The New York Times by a senior NASA scientist who said he resented attempts to muzzle climate researchers.”

The article goes on to describe NASA’s reaction to the release of this memo stating:

“Late last week, however, NASA appeared to relax its stand on discussing the movie. Though she did not disavow the e-mail, Gretchen Cook-Anderson, a spokeswoman at NASA headquarters, said on Thursday that the agency would make scientists available to discuss issues raised by the film.”

What is missing from all of this is the context within which these memos were written and the relationship between the space agency and the film’s producers.

According to NASA sources the New York Times article wasn’t quite accurate. Indeed they got the polarity of the email’s intent reversed. There was indeed an email and it was quoted correctly.

However, that email message had to do with NASA employees who had worked on the film (as
individuals) proactively seeking interviews by the media in conjunction with the movie. The email had nothing to do with concerns over the editorial content or any attempt to limit response by NASA
employees if asked.

The film’s directors had apparently worked with NASA’s Earth Science people on the script, but, after working with NASA personnel for several years, they failed to eventually sign a Space Act agreement. Signing such an agreement, as was the case with films such as “Mission to Mars” and “Armageddon” is a standing requirement for any project NASA cooperates with. In fact, word has it that NASA is waiting for the film to be released to see if it illegally uses the agency’s logo.

Some of NASA’s Earth science people were actually anxious to get out there and talk about the movie. NASA is reportedly ready to respond to any and all inquiries but the agency is concerned that it not be seen to promote the film in any way. It would seem that the NY Times did not follow this story to the depth it needed to be followed – and got the story wrong.

We will endeavor to get both the NASA HQ and NASA GSFC memos online – verbatim – in the next day or so.

Memo from NASA HQ Public Affairs to NASA GSFC Public Affairs

Editor’s note: Note that this email does not say anything about prohibiting “interviews” instead, it explicitly makes note of NASA personnel not being allowed to be involved in “publicity” for the film. This email was followed with a telecon between NASA HQ and NASA GSFC to explain the details.

X-Authentication-Warning: spinoza.public.hq.nasa.gov: majordom set sender to owner-multimedia using -f

X-Sender: bfergus1@mail.hq.nasa.gov

Date: Tue, 3 Feb 2004 12:22:36 -0400

To: multimedia@spinoza.public.hq.nasa.gov

From: bobbie ferguson

Subject: Movie “The Day After Tomorrow”

Sender: owner-multimedia@spinoza.public.hq.nasa.gov

20th Century Fox is scheduled to release the feature film “The Day After Tomorrow” Memorial weekend.

NASA worked with the producers, writer and director during the preproduction of this film.  This included script research and development.

NASA did not participate in this film due to the fact that the producers, director and studio would not sign a Space Act Agreement.

It appears that we are now getting requests from reporters wanting to interview NASA personnel regarding this film.

Please remember that we cannot participate in any publicity regarding this film.  If you have any questions, please contact me at 202-358-4702.


Bobbie Faye

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.