Will NASA continue its data-gathering and research on Earth Systems, helping chart a path “for all mankind”?

November 26, 2016

A friend and colleague who was a former manager at NASA said, “I wonder if Trump has yet figured out that NASA Earth Science also launches and operates the weather and Landsat satellites?  Without NASA Earth Science there is no daily weather picture on the evening news (or your favorite smart phone app), and there is no longer the massive set of Landsat imagery that is used for countless commercial purposes.” 

This past week president-elect Trump talked about trips to planets throughout the solar system, removing NASA funding for climate work, and relocating such work to other agencies.   NASA’s budget for earth/climate science next year was supposed to be $2 billion while space research has been scaled back to about $2.8 billion.  

In the Guardian, Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said as NASA provides the scientific community with new instruments and techniques, “It could put us back into the ‘dark ages’ of almost the pre-satellite era,” he said. “It would be extremely short sighted.  “We live on planet Earth and there is much to discover, and it is essential to track and monitor many things from space. Information on planet Earth and its atmosphere and oceans is essential for our way of life. Space research is a luxury, Earth observations are essential.”  Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University, said “It would be a blatantly political move, and would indicate the president-elect’s willingness to pander to the very same lobbyists and corporate interest groups he derided throughout the campaign.”

The below is excerpted and adapted from The Conversation

Indeed, NASA’s Apollo was a staggering achievement. But while US astronauts visited the Moon “for all mankind” we should remember that the space race was driven by the cold war and rivalry with the USSR. The fact humans have never returned to the Moon should tell us that there isn’t much to be gained from such fleeting visits.  On the other hand, there is much to be gained from research “for all mankind.”

Eugene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17 and so the last human to walk on the moon, summed up NASA’s legacy after his trip: “We went to explore the Moon, and in fact discovered the Earth”. It was one of the crew of Apollo 17 that took photograph AS17-148-22727 as they left Earth orbit on their way to the Moon on the December 7, 1972. This photograph is now known as the Blue Marble and has become one of the most reproduced images in all of human history.

Big blue marble photo

There have been profound changes to the Earth since that photograph was taken. There are nearly twice as many humans living on it. The number of wild animals has halved. Concentrations of CO₂ in the atmosphere are higher than they have been for many thousands of years. And yes, the Earth’s surface and oceans are warmer, glaciers are melting and sea levels rising.

The Blue Marble, like all of NASA’s images, was released to the public domain. Free to be used by anyone. The science that NASA conducts on climate change is similarly shared across the world. Its Earth and climate science represents the best of not just the US, but humanity.