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Sustainable Innovation: The Patience to Get it Right

NASA and the Evolution Climate Change Research


"Distance lends enchantment to the view." -- Mark Twain

Back when America was young and farmers outnumbered city folk, planning next year’s crop typically included a quick look to the Farmers’ Almanac for advice. Filled with seasonal forecasts, planting charts, tide tables and astronomical charts, the Farmers’ Almanac was cutting edge technology for long-range forecasting when it was first published in 1792.

Still going strong today, the Almanac reflects our abiding dependence on the cycles of nature, the give-and-take of the seasons, and a stable, predictable climate within which we may thrive. As the human footprint expanded across the globe, so too did the necessity of understanding the Earth and our place in it.

This point was never brought home more poignantly than in December 1968, when Apollo 8 transmitted the first images ever seen of Earth from space, as witnessed by three lonely space travelers. If a picture can write a thousand words, that one image wrote a book.

NASA’s manned space flight missions to the moon grabbed attention and glory for the agency in the '60s, but Earthrise was the seed that germinated NASA’s most important mission: looking back on ourselves and understanding how the world works.

Budget priorities

In the 50 years since Bill Anders snapped the “unscheduled” photo of Earth rising over the moon’s surface (above), the human population doubled, grain yields tripled, and economic output grew seven times over. In the process, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide rose from 323 parts per-million to over 400 ppm, up nearly 25 percent in a geologic glint of time. According to NASA Earth Science, “Over a third of the U.S. economy -- $3 trillion annually -- is influenced by climate, weather and natural hazards, providing economic incentive to study the Earth.”

The economic growth of the past half century hasn’t necessarily translated into growth of NASA’s budget. NASA receives 0.40 percent of the federal government’s $4.147 trillion budget. Contrast that to the 12.6 percent allocated to defense spending. The $523.9 billion budgeted to the DoD would pay for all of NASA's activities 29 times over.

Climate research is particularly vulnerable given the current political climate in Washington. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas chairs the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Often characterized as a climate denier with hostility toward climate change research, Smith counters that he’s a “not a denier, but a skeptic.” The committee authorized extreme cuts of as much as 25 percent of NASA's earth sciences budget in 2015 over concerns that the earth sciences team studies climate change. The budget remains under attack. 

How does NASA continue to refine and improve its Earth science and climate research in spite of a disinterested Congress constantly looking to defund research?

Research priorities

In the beginning, NASA had no official role in Earth science. When Congress chartered NASA in 1958 with the National Aeronautics and Space Act, the mission was developing technologies for space observation and "research into the problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere." Early NASA administrators integrated the agency's technology development with an Earth Observations program at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. At first, this was an "applications program" with the Weather Bureau and the U.S. Geological Survey. The agreement between the three agencies specified the Weather Bureau (which later became the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-NOAA) and USGS to conduct scientific research with NASA providing "observational technology." 

The agreement between the three agencies specified the Weather Bureau (which later became the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-NOAA) and USGS to conduct scientific research with NASA providing "observational technology." This cooperative arrangement produced the Nimbus series of experimental weather satellites and the Landsat series of land resources satellites.

An economic downturn and extended period of inflation in the 1970s scuttled this inter-agency arrangement. Congress set to work cutting the budgets of all three agencies. NOAA and the USGS were unable to fund their part of the program. Budget cuts squeezed NASA as well, but in 1976, Congress revised the 1958 space act, authorizing NASA to conduct stratospheric ozone research. NASA now had a fundamental role in Earth science.

NASA's early planetary missions to Venus and Mars helped pique Congress' interest in Earth science. Astronomers expected these "Earth-like" planets to have surfaces conditions able to support life. Instead, they found Venus with a CO2-choked atmosphere and surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead; a "runaway" greenhouse effect. On Mars, they found an atmosphere only 1 percent as dense as Earth's, a frozen surface, and no water. But Mars also hinted to a distant past when liquid water may have flowed freely on its surface.

These unexpected initial findings from our planetary neighbors focused attention on our own planet. As for planetary exploration beyond Earth, Congress soon lost interest. In 1977, Congress made sharp cutbacks in planetary exploration. President Ronald Reagan threatened to eliminate the program entirely.

In the late '70s and early '80s, NASA moved into low Earth orbit.

Earth observatory

With the glory of Apollo long gone, massive cuts in spending for planetary research, and the start of the Space Shuttle program, NASA turned its attention even more to planet Earth. A growing awareness of the potential for climate disruption in the '70s and '80s, an expanding ozone hole over the Antarctic, and increasing stress on global ecosystems set in motion a new mission for NASA.

In 1982 NASA started an Earth science program called Global Habitability, which later became Mission to Planet Earth. In 1984, Congress once again revised the original Space Act, granting authority for the "expansion of human knowledge of the Earth." Interagency research efforts once again took shape, leading to the Global Change Research Program.

In the fiscal year 1991, Congress appropriated funds for the Earth Observing System. A network of coordinated polar-orbiting and low inclination satellites, the EOS provides long-term observation of land surface, oceans, biosphere, and atmosphere. It is the Farmers' Almanac writ large. EOS is the foundation of space-based Earth sciences, bringing its ongoing observations to both the global research community and the general public.

In all, NASA currently has 19 operating Earth climate science missions monitoring a host of Earth processes. Just a few among them include:

  • The Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America monitors the terrestrial carbon cycle.

  • Aqua collects data on evaporation, precipitation and cycling of water over land and sea.

  • COral provides a global-scale picture of the condition of coral reefs.

  • DSCOVR Deep Space Climate Observatory launched in February 2015. DSCOVR orbits in deep space at the Lagrange Point between Earth and the Sun. It provides and early warning of severe solar storms and also measures aerosols, ozone, and changes in Earth's radiation.

  • The twin GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellites in polar orbit map Earth gravitational waves. The project monitors shifting deepwater ocean currents, runoff and groundwater storage, and exchanges between ice sheets and oceans.

  • Jason 3 measures ocean surface height

The Blue Marble

Despite the vagaries of Congress and the politics of climate change, NASA has developed a long-term, integrated system for observing Earth and measuring global change. NASA's role in climate and research is embedded in the effort to understand the complex, interdependent systems that eventually bore life in a lonely corner of a vast universe.

I suggest that there is no part of the human endeavor that is not ultimately impacted by the health of our planet. The image of Earth, hovering like a blue and white jewel against the stark backdrop of space, jarred humanity into a new realization of our place in the universe and the sheer beauty of our Blue Marble.

The race to the moon called us home.

Earthrise Image enhancement credit: Marc Van Nordon, courtesy Flickr

Mission chart courtesy of NASA

Blue Marble image editing credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, courtesy Flickr

Thomas Schueneman headshot

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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