NASA, Other

Hurricanes, satellites, NASA’s proper Earth sciences role

Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times featured an op-ed by Paul Thornton, a researcher for the paper’s editorial page, decrying the state of NASA’s Earth sciences program. Thornton finds a topical hook for his piece: the return of the space shuttle Endeavour one day early because of Hurricane Dean, which was monitored by, among other satellites, the aging QuikSCAT spacecraft. The essay follows a well-worn path: the “moon-crazed Bush administration” is not spending enough money on Earth science. Indeed, without the current events reference, this argument follows the same lines as similar editorials on NASA’s Earth sciences program discussed here back in January.

Thornton operates under the assumption that Earth sciences should be something NASA does, just that it should do more of it (how much more is apparently beyond the scope of this particular essay.) After all, NASA has done Earth sciences work for decades, and “The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth” is one of the objectives of the nation’s “aeronautical and space activities”, as defined in the National Aeronautics and Space Act. But there have been rumblings from time to time about whether NASA is the best home for Earth sciences research. During a panel session at the NewSpace 2007 conference last month, for example, there was some discussion of the formation of a “Department of the Environment” in a future (probably Democratic) administration that could absorb NASA’s Earth sciences programs. Also noteworthy is that legislation introduced earlier in the year in the House and Senate to authorize a replacement for QuikSCAT would give responsibility for the program to NOAA (“in consultation” with NASA and any other relevant federal agencies). NOAA and NASA, of course, already work together closely on some Earth sciences programs, and plan to strengthen that relationship, Aerospace Daily reported this week.

So, perhaps the question to ask is not how to get NASA to pay more attention to Earth sciences, but whether NASA should be in that line of work at all. Not that any shift like that would be easy to do, of course.

10 comments to Hurricanes, satellites, NASA’s proper Earth sciences role

  • anonymous

    Mr. Thornton is mixing apples, oranges, and bananas in his editorial.

    For GPM, Griffin, and to a lesser extent the White House and Congress, do deserve criticism for repeated budget cuts and interminable delays. GPM is exactly the kind of groundbreaking mission that an R&D agency like NASA should be doing (in Earth Science or otherwise), even more so because its data will greatly inform future global warming projections. Even as a space cadet, I’d argue it’s a higher priority than much of what is going on in, say, Constellation.

    But to the extent that QuicScat is important to hurricane predictions, a follow-on QuikScat mission is not a failure of NASA, but of NOAA, priorities and budgets. As an R&D agency, NASA should not and cannot be responsible for building and running operational satellites. Once NASA proves out a new Earth Science instrument, it’s up to NOAA to decide the value of continuing those data sets, and if deemed valuable, obtaining the budget necessary to build and operate the follow-on satellites.

    Finally, although it does offer some value, in terms of science priorities, the DSCO (formerly Triana) mission has never been as high a priority as missions like GPM or QuikScat. If we’re going to critique NASA’s priorities, there are other deferred Earth Science missions that deserve more attention.

    It’s fine to criticize Earth Science versus human space exploration priorities, and GPM is a good example. But NASA should not get blamed for not following through on operational missions that are NOAA’s responsibility or for low priority Earth Science missions that were not judged worth the cost of launching even when the Earth Science budget was better funded.

    Mr. Thornton should live up to his job description and do better research in the future. That was a half-baked editorial, at best.

  • “As an R&D agency, NASA should not and cannot be responsible for building and running operational satellites.”

    I agree with this statement but felt you did not go far enough. I would emphasize the word “building”. NASA should not be building any space platforms at all except for deep space probes and “maybe” some telescopes. For most missions for earth obs, there is not a lot of R&D to be done except for perhaps an instrument or two. The problem here is that NASA traditionally has the role of managing the procurement of all space hardware for the civil government and it needs to get out of that business. Agencies like NOAA and USGS and others need to build their own contracting ability to purchase operational satellites directly from the commercial sector.

    There is no need for NASA to be involved in any follow-on mission for something like Quicksat, GOES or Landsat or any other type of mission like that. All NASA adds to being in the mix as a middle man is increased costs and fights over funding priorities with the rest of its missions. Earth obs is a mature sector of the space industry and NASA no longer is needed in the role as the main agency overseeing all civil space.

  • Honest American

    All good and faithful, Bush supporting God fearing Americans get their science from newspaper op-eds.

  • anonymous

    A little more evidence of Mr. Thornton’s lack of research (or understanding)… Thornton’s statement about QuikScat here:

    “Launched in 1999, QuikSCAT was supposed to orbit for no more than five years. Currently, it’s limping around the Earth on dying hardware and outdated technology. Earlier this year, Bill Proenza, head of the National Hurricane Center, started publicly warning of a 16% decrease in accurate hurricane forecasts should we lose the satellite without a replacement.”

    Relies heavily on the opinion of a man (Proenza) who left his position as head of the National Hurricane Center because, among other things, experts disagreed with his assessment of the importance of QuikScat to hurricane forecasts. From a CNN article:

    “Proenza caused an uproar last month with comments about a key hurricane satellite called QuikSCAT. The satellite is five years beyond its life expectancy and operating on a backup transmitter. Proenza said if it were to fail, forecast tracks could be thrown off by as much as 16 percent…

    But one of the center’s longtime forecasters said Proenza’s comments were misguided.

    ‘QuikSCAT is another tool that we use to forecast,’ Lixion Avila said. ‘The forecast will not be degraded if we don’t have the QuikSCAT.’”

    Full article here:

    Again, there are very legitimate debates to be had about the importance of Earth Science research relative to other NASA priorities. But highly questionable statements about the value of a satellite to forecasters that are debated by the very forecasters themselves should not be introduced as evidence (pro or con) in such a debate.

    Thornton should know better…

  • Ignorant American

    Bill Proenza was canned because he didn’t tow the Bush line of BS. That’s all.

    And we all know what the Bush line is : white, crystalline, powder …

    This is what Americans got when they voted for an idiot, twice.

  • Roger Clinton

    You mean my brother? Who I was caught on an FBI surveillance tape stating that he had a nose like a vaccum cleaner?

    Please don’t call Bill an idiot Ignorant American. Crook, yes but not an idiot.

  • Ray

    Jeff: “So, perhaps the question to ask is not how to get NASA to pay more attention to Earth sciences, but whether NASA should be in that line of work at all.”

    That’s what I wonder about NASA building space transportation services. I’ve been noticing all sorts of justifications for Ares I/V in NASA documents recently that attempt to justify these rockets by all of the non-lunar payloads they could launch. It reminded me of how the Space Shuttle was justified, and the resulting consequences to the U.S. commercial space industry. Let’s not go down that path again …

    Getting back to NASA vs. NOAA as the best home for NASA’s Earth science work, I’d just like to ask a few questions. I’ve heard the proposal “send NASA Earth sciences to NOAA” from both Earth science and human spaceflight advocates attempting to protect their turf from the other, so I’m not sure which would actually benefit from such a move. Would such a move help anything for either side (assuming the cash followed the program line), or just result in an expensive, disruptive distraction?

    Note that there’s a distinction between NASA research-oriented Earth observations, and NOAA operational-oriented observations (series of similar satellites for long-term weather and climate monitoring, for example). Would these blend better?

    Would such a move isolate the (future NOAA) research satellites from cutting-edge technologies used in the NASA planetary program?

    Would NOAA’s operational priorities supercede the new research priorities, cutting out future progress?

    NOAA is part of the NPOESS program, which has had a lot of problems. Would it make sense to give them more when they’re in such a difficult position already? (Here I get back to my line of thought with NASA’s human spaceflight program – as a matter of “rewards”, and also as a matter of not overwhelming those in difficulty – why give them more before they’ve demonstrated more success with what they’ve got?)?

    Also, note that not all NASA Earth observation work is related to NOAA’s oceans and atmosphere. For example, see the Terra satellite.

    One question I have about the move relates to my recent post in the “How to build a political consensus for space” thread. Picking environment monitoring as 1 “Big Problem” for NASA to focus on (and I really think they should try smaller efforts at several “Big Problems”), I mentioned several possible Earth observation missions for NASA:

    - Earth observations from lunar orbit or the lunar surface
    - Earth observations from ISS or commercial add-ons or separate commercial space stations
    - Earth observations from NASA aeronautics (eg: long-duration planes)
    - Earth observations from commercial vehicles used primarily for personal spaceflight, or other NewSpace suborbital vehicles

    I think NASA would have a much easier time conceiving, and implementing, such efforts than NOAA. It would also be good, of course, if NASA could develop such observations and transition them to operational observation programs by NOAA.

  • Adrasteia

    How about earth observations from a $15M smallsat?

  • Monte Davis

    I’ve heard the proposal “send NASA Earth sciences to NOAA” from both Earth science and human spaceflight advocates attempting to protect their turf from the other, so I’m not sure which would actually benefit from such a move.

    Over 30 years, I’ve repeatedly asked both planetary scientists and remote-sensing earth scientists: “Would you really be happier if your probe/satellite activities were spun off from NASA?”

    More often than not, the answer has been no. Much as they’d like to do better in dividing-the-pie contests within NASA’s budget, they also know that what they get is Very Big Science by the standards of science at large (e.g. the NSF budget), and they might not do nearly so well if detached from the spaceflight bandwagon.

  • anonymous

    Per some of the comments here, the L.A. Times has added a correction to Mr. Thornton’s editorial:

    The original version of this article incorrectly laid responsibility for replacing the QuikSCAT satellite on NASA. The National Oceaning and Atmospheric Administration, which is under the U.S. Department of Commerce, operates QuikSCAT and is responsible for replacing the satellite.”



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