Why did NASA stop exploring the ocean? What did they find?

Bruno Cooke April 7, 2021

A recent TikTok video from memes_to_click falsely claims that NASA’s “original mission” was to explore the oceans. But is there any truth to it, and if there is, why did NASA stop exploring the oceans? What did they find in the ocean?

Why did NASA stop exploring the oceans?

The memes_to_click TikTok video, fact-checked and debunked by Newsweek over a week ago, falsely claims that NASA’s original purpose was ocean exploration.

It also claims that, after finding something, NASA’s plans “abruptly” changed to space exploration – or, in its own parlance, to “getting us off this planet ASAP”.

View over ocean waves toward rocket about to launch from the SpaceX Kennedy Space Center as the sun emerges behind dark clouds, illuminating the launch pad scenery.

What did NASA find in the ocean?

This is what the TikTok video wants you to ask. However, it misses the point. NASA’s founding principles had nothing to do with exploring the ocean.

Newsweek presents the facts. NASA’s original objectives were:

  • Expanding human knowledge of phenomena in space
  • Improving the performance of aeronautical and space vehicles
  • Developing vehicles capable of carrying stuff and people into space
  • Establishing long range studies into the utilisation of aeronautical and space activities, for peaceful and scientific purposes
  • Preserving the role of the US as a leader in aeronautical and space science

The purpose of NASA was not to explore oceans; it was to explore space and the atmosphere.

Is NASA involved in ocean exploration at all? Did it ever explore the ocean?

Yes, but probably not in the way you think.

NASA commissioned the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in 1959. 

Among other things, the GSFC develops satellite systems for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), established in 1970.

NOAA monitors and observes weather and climatic systems, analyses the data it collects in order to understand and predict changes in weather systems, and advises the public and partner organisations regarding its findings. 

The Office of Ocean Exploration Research (OER) is the division of NOAA that actually supports expeditions and exploration projects. So, although its funding and/or organisational clout may come through NASA, its expeditions are not actually NASA’s business.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

NASA and ESSP

NASA also engages in oceanic research via its Earth System Science Pathfinder (ESSP) missions.

For example, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), a joint mission of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), launched in 2018, measures gravity anomalies.

Gravity anomalies occur when the distribution of water around the planet changes. While such measurements certainly involve water and the oceans, they are not oceanic explorations per se.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Aquarius mission (launched 2008) measures and maps the salinity of Earth’s oceans, and how salt moved around the planet.

But both of these missions conduct explore the oceans from space. They mostly collect data from satellites.

How much of the ocean is unexplored?

NOAA estimates that more than 80% of the planet’s ocean is unmapped, unobserved and unexplored.

The cause of this is the sheer inaccessibility of parts of the world’s oceans.

marine biologist surveys bleached coral

Below a certain depth, it is impossible to see anything, it is very cold, and the intense pressure crushes anything that isn’t supposed to be down here.

“On a dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, which is nearly 7 miles deep, you’re talking about over 1,000 times more pressure than at the surface,” NASA oceanographer Gene Carl Feldman told Oceana

“That’s the equivalent of the weight of 50 jumbo jets pressing on your body.”