OpEd: From Shovel Ready to Satellite Ready

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  Space News Business

OpEd: From Shovel Ready to Satellite Ready

By EDWARD GOLDSTEIN

posted: 04 March 2009
04:15 pm ET






‘s “GI general,” once sagely observed: “Now is the time when we’ve got to steer by the stars, and not by the lights of every passing ship.” In the midst of America’s current economic crisis we must realize that after urgent problems in the financial, construction and housing sectors are addressed – the ominous ships now passing too close for comfort for millions – a more intense focus is required, as U.S. President BarackObama has stated, on a “strategy for America’s long-term growth.” One arguably can agree on this point regardless of their views on the stimulus bill.

Fortunately, forward-focused funding for space exploration, which will boost innovation in many high-tech sectors, and for Earth science from space, which will help our economy navigate through the uncertainties of climate change, and spur the transition to a green economy (for example with support for wind and solar forecasting), are significant elements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Having chronicled in my dissertation the ups and downs of NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth, the initiative begun 20 years ago by President George H.W. Bush to put NASA’s satellite and research capabilities to work monitoring climate change, President Obama’s stimulus funding for Earth science – $400 million to accelerate the development of NASA Earth science climate research missions, as well as $170 million for NOAA climate programs – represents new hope that NASA’s and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Earth science programs will be re-energized, and produce increasing value to society.

Ensuring that we invest in developing, launching and operating new observing satellites is as essential as pushing shovel- ready projects for our economic future. There is a gnawing need to close gaps in climate monitoring capabilities and move forward with new technological capabilities recognized by the National Research Council’s (NRC) Decadal Survey on Earth Science and Applications from Space, so that we are fully able to identify and address climate-related problems, improve land-use and natural resource management, and protect our citizens and property from natural disasters. And as Nancy Colleton, executive director of the Alliance for Earth Observations points out, the goals of the decadal survey may need to be updated to reflect the National Academy of Sciences’ climate study, “America’s Climate Choices,” and the recent failure of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, as well as to respond to the need for a baseline climate measuring system if our country adopts a greenhouse gas “cap- and-trade” system.

To date, NASA has attempted to follow the decadal survey recommendations but has lacked the funding to keep pace in developing the full suite of 15 missions the NRC has proposed for 2011-2020. Indeed, the stimulus bill funding for Earth science represents just a down payment on what is required to restore the basic level of funding for Earth science observations from space that existed a decade ago, avoid gaps in data used to forecast severe weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis, and understand how the Earth’s climate is changing.

When President George H.W. Bush launched to Planet Earth, he also recognized that NASA’s overall exploration program needed reinvigoration. He allowed NASA spending as a percentage of the federal budget to increase to nearly 1 percent, well above today’s 0.6 percent. Since then, we have been stuck in a mindset that the federal government cannot sustain that modestly higher level of funding for NASA. But President Obama’s focus on the future and enthusiasm for the importance of science and technology to our national well-being gives us hope that perhaps NASA can receive a boost that will support its essential exploration and scientific missions.

For this to happen, as Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) noted Feb. 12 during the confirmation hearing for Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, we must get away from the condition that “NASA has become the hand maiden of OMB [the White House Office of Management and Budget]. It is not the way to set policy to have some green eye-shade person at OMB making policy,” he added.

Jack Fellows, a former OMB NASA budget examiner who is the antithesis of a green eye-shade type, has recommended that we return to an OMB practice that worked 20 years ago – allowing the agencies involved in Earth science to develop, in cooperation with OMB and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), an “annual integrated weather and climate program and budget” with programs that “should be considered national priorities and protected from internal agency budget cuts and tradeoffs.” In his confirmation testimony, Holdren spoke about the need to expand weather and climate change research, and better coordinate these programs, which is a good sign. Also positive was the statement by Lubchenco that she intends to work closely with her NASA counterpart to improve the transition from NASA research and development of Earth science satellites and instruments to NOAA operations.

I am confident NASA can continue to serve the national interest with a robust Earth science program that is not only aligned with other agencies, but also has a long-term vision consistent with the agency’s can-do spirit. Michael Frelich, NASA’s Earth science program director, has spoken about expanding “the leading role of NASA measurements and NASA- supported analyses in advancing Earth system science – improving our quantitative understanding of the Earth as an integrated system.”

He says that such measurements and analysis will address the need to develop “long, multidecadal, global, consistently processed measurements of particular processes…especially of the oceans because the ocean is the giant flywheel of the [Earth] system…about half the heat that’s put in near the equator and goes off toward the poles is carried by the atmosphere and half is carried in the ocean.”

Additionally, NASA planners envision in the upcoming years of using constellations of smart satellites placed in various orbits to augment airborne sensors and surface-based sensors to form an integrated, interactive “sensorweb” observing system.

As we anticipate such a future, perhaps the greatest testimony to the lasting relevance of NASA’s Earth science program comes from those select few humans who have seen our fragile Earth from space. Among them, astronaut Piers Sellers said the following in 2004: “Our technical ability to view the Earth from space is coincident with our ability to change our planetary environment. So at the very time that we are able to see our planetary home in its entirety, we are powerfully motivated to do so – to understand how the Earth system works, to help us assess the kind and degree of changes, both man-made and natural, that are ongoing, and ultimately to help us predict the future consequences of these changes.”

The stimulus package funding for Earth science, which will support the aerospace industry and keep some of America’s top scientists and researchers productively employed in climate research producing the essential information Sellers spoke about, will also help our nation construct a 21st century economy that will be steered soundly by the light of the stars.

Edward Goldstein, NASA’s lead writer from 2002-2009, earned his doctorate from in 2007. His dissertation was a history of NASA’s Earth Science program from 1972-2006.