Editorial: Space and Disasters

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As the United States embarks down what certainly will be a long and painful road to recovery from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the contribution space capabilities have made — and will continue to make — in the response and relief efforts cannot be overstated.

Like Sept. 11, the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami and myriad other cataclysmic events, Katrina and its aftermath demonstrated how indispensable satellite technology becomes when a large-scale disaster , natural or man made, strikes.

Rescue authorities are relying heavily on Earth-observation satellite data to assess damage and plan relief and recovery operations. Federal agencies such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and others are lending their considerable data-gathering, processing and distribution resources to the effort. Private imaging-satellite operators DigitalGlobe, Orbimage and Space Imaging also have stepped up, dedicating their satellite resources to mapping the scope of the damage and flooding.

In Katrina’s wake, the United States for the first time invoked the international Charter on Cooperation to Achieve the Coordinated Use of Space In the Event of Natural or Technological Disasters. Known informally as the Disasters Charter, the agreement allows any signatory to rally the satellite remote sensing assets of all members to help it cope with these events.

The U.S. activation of the charter should make two things clear to Congress, the White House and others: NASA’s Earth observing satellites are every bit as important — perhaps more so — as those trained on the heavens; and international environmental-monitoring coordination efforts such as the Global Earth Observation System of Systems have tremendous potential.

The U.S. government should take the lead to ensure that this complex international effort becomes a reality.

Meanwhile, commercial satellite-communications services have once again distinguished themselves in this still-unfolding tragedy. With cellular networks and other terrestrial communications infrastructure largely wiped out in the affected areas of the Gulf Coast, satellite systems are enabling relief organizations to plan, coordinate and prioritize their efforts. To their credit, companies from all sectors of the satellite industry, including telephone, radio and TV, broadband and other services, have donated millions of dollars worth of equipment, bandwidth and other resources to the relief effort.

Unfortunately, the fact that this mass mobilization of commercial satellite capabilities took place largely after Katrina hit — satellite phone companies were still scrambling to fill orders a week later — strongly suggests that federal, state and local organizations responsible for disaster relief and recovery are not properly equipped to do their jobs.

Sept. 11 unmasked the inherent vulnerability of terrestrial communications infrastructure, even in the most developed of areas. The U.S. government should make it a priority to outfit federal, state and local authorities with satellite telephones, data terminals and other equipment. Otherwise, the response to future disasters of Katrina’s scale will be similarly sluggish and dysfunctional.

There is another link between Katrina and space activity: Two NASA facilities, Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and the Michoud Assembly Facility in flood-ravaged New Orleans, were right smack in the path of the Category 4 storm. Although Stennis and Michoud emerged mostly intact, with an estimated $1.1 billion in damage between them, those who work at the sites have had their lives turned upside down.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which builds the external tanks for NASA’s space shuttle at Michoud, spent the immediate aftermath of the storm just trying to contact its workers, with about half of the 2,200 employees still unaccounted for more than a week after the disaster struck. And while NASA reported Sept. 9 that it finally had accounted for all of its 300 civil servants and nearly all of its contractors at Stennis, it will be weeks, perhaps months, before normal operations can resume at either facility.

What that means for NASA’s plan to resume launching space shuttles by March 2006 is unknown at this point. But getting on with the shuttle program is not NASA’s top priority right now: The agency is correctly focused on the welfare of its employees and others displaced by Katrina.

Recovery from Katrina will take years and some places, particularly in New Orleans, might never be the same. Meanwhile, the inevitable national period of reflection, post mortem and yes, blame, already is in full swing. Satellite technology may not be the first thing that comes up in debating the lessons of Katrina and its aftermath, but it nonetheless demands an important place in that dialogue.