Everything Old is New Again (Space Science Edition)

An article in Wired reminds us that space science can (and should) be relevant to terrestrial issues (*):

There is a new challenge, however, that could ensure NASA remains relevant over its next 50 years: global environmental change, primarily human-induced global warming.

Jonathan Trent of the NASA Ames Green Team, a research group trying to bring NASA’s expertise to bear on energy and environmental problems on Earth, put it poetically.

“We are the crew of a spaceship we don’t understand,” Ames [sic] said. “The radical technology we need is not just for us, but the life forms on Earth with us.”

This seemed oddly familiar. To the way-back machine NYT archives!

WHEN President Bush outlined his vision of America’s future in space last week, Mars and the Moon outshone another initiative that the President said was critical to the space program: a 25-year effort using a new network of satellites to understand how the Earth’s atmosphere, seas and living creatures function as a global system.

Yes, that’s President George H. W. Bush, and the story appeared on July 25, 1989. This was called “Mission to Planet Earth” at the time, though in the Clinton era it became the très-New Democrat “Earth Science Enterprise” and what did those diabolical Clintonistas do? Let’s jump ahead to 1998:

The craft’s surveillance target is not some distant world, but rather the home planet of those who built it. AM-1 is to be the flagship of a new generation of earth satellites called the Earth Observing System, or EOS, which in turn is the centerpiece of what until recently has been called Mission to Planet Earth: a 15-year effort to subject the interlinked workings of the atmosphere, oceans and land surfaces to detailed scrutiny from space.

It should be easy to guess at the gestational difficulties for the project:

As conceived at the start of the 1990’s, EOS was to consist of an elaborate array of six 15-ton satellites, each carrying 12 sensing instruments… to be launched over a 12-year period beginning in 1998. A complementary series of smaller satellites was to be sent into orbit starting somewhat earlier. The cost of the program, including operational expenses, was projected at $17 billion by 2000 and $30 billion by 2020.

But the project never found solid support. When Mr. Goldin became the NASA Administrator, he set out to make the space agency’s programs ”smaller, cheaper, faster, better,” and EOS was a prime target of his intended reforms…

[T]he program came under attack from Congressional Republicans who charged that its purpose was to push a global-warming agenda.

EOS survived that challenge, but was redesigned in accordance with Mr. Goldin’s philosophy.

Then comes the other George Bush:

The two-year study by the National Academy of Sciences, released yesterday, determined that NASA’s earth science budget has declined 30 percent since 2000. It stands to fall further as funding shifts to plans for a manned mission to the moon and Mars. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, has experienced enormous cost overruns and schedule delays with its premier weather and climate mission.

As a result, the panel said, the United States will not have the scientific information it needs in the years ahead to analyze severe storms and changes in Earth’s climate unless programs are restored and funding made available.

“NASA’s budget has taken a major hit at the same time that NOAA’s program has fallen off the rails,” said panel co-chairman Berrien Moore III of the University of New Hampshire. “This combination is very, very disturbing, and it’s coming at the very time that we need the information most.”

After all, it isn’t as if the Bush Administration has ever sought to suppress politically inconvenient information.

(*) Not that there’s anything wrong with space science for its own sake.

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