May 27, 2015

Should NASA be Studying the Earth?

Posted by elandau

This past spring, Congress took a number of steps that seemed to imply that NASA should be reprioritizing its focus away from the Earth Sciences.

For example, during a hearing on March 12, 2015, some members of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness suggested to NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. that NASA should shift its attention from Earth Science to space exploration and research, which they suggested is NASA’s core mission and necessary to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.    Furthermore, by saying that NASA needs “to get back to the hard sciences,” subcommittee chair Senator Ted Cruz appeared to imply that the Earth sciences are not “hard sciences” like other research topics supported by NASA.

Then, in April, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee voted on a 2016/2017 NASA reauthorization bill that would significantly cut funding for NASA’s Earth Science programs.   And just last week, the House Appropriations Committee passed their version of the bill that funds NASA – the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations  bill – which would add funding to NASA’s planetary science division, but at the direct expense of the Earth Sciences. The full House still needs to vote on that bill – and the Senate will soon be working on its version of the CJS Appropriations bill.

So, should NASA be studying the Earth?

"Earth6391" by THEBLITZ1

“Earth6391” by THEBLITZ1

Administrator Bolden gave an eloquent response during the March Senate hearing, reminding the senators that the Earth sciences have been part of NASA’s mission since the agency’s inception and that NASA’s role in Earth science missions is critically important for understanding our planet. Christine W. McEntee, executive director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), emphasized these points the next day in an open letter to Senator Cruz, and later to the House in response to the NASA reauthorization bill.

Since I have done research in astrophysics, space physics and the Earth sciences, studying objects from the distant universe down to Earth’s surface, I have a somewhat unusual perspective about NASA research, and so I would like to share a few additional thoughts on the subject.

I can say from firsthand experience that the Earth sciences are “hard sciences,” just like other areas of physics such as astrophysics or space physics.  Earth scientists use the same scientific method and have the same standards as other fields.  Indeed, Earth scientists often publish their research in the same peer-reviewed journals as space and planetary scientists.

Many Earth processes can only be investigated by studying our planet as a whole, or at least by studying large portions of it, which often requires remote sensing using satellite-based instruments.  For instance, prior to the 1980s, sea surface temperatures were mainly measurements from shorelines, ships and buoys, and so these data were quite sparse.  Now, thanks largely to NASA satellite observations, we have a much better view of ocean temperatures, which are important data for climate and ocean modeling and for weather forecasting.  On the topic of weather, there was a time before the space age when people had little or no warning of approaching hurricanes.  Now, thanks to space-based observations, we can predict them and warn people many days in advance.

Furthermore, when weighing the importance of the Earth sciences, we should keep in mind that there is no sharp physical boundary between the Earth and space, and so it often makes sense to study them together.  For instance, an extremely successful program within NASA is called “Living with a Star,” which recognizes the deep connection between astrophysics, the Sun and human beings.  Research such as this has been part of NASA since its formation.

Finally, when Congress talks about NASA Earth Science, the topic that is clearly the silent elephant in the room is climate research.  I am not a climate scientist and do not directly benefit professionally from climate research funding.  However, I do work on a topic involving the Earth’s atmosphere (i.e., thunderstorms and lightning), and so I understand climate research and appreciate its importance.  An extensive body of peer-reviewed climate research has proven that the rapid warming over the past five decades has been caused primarily by human activities.  Projected future warming due to ever-increasing levels of heat-trapping gases will have significant impacts on future generations.

To avert this approaching catastrophe, we need our elected leaders to make the right policy decisions—decisions based on the best available science. We therefore need to continue funding basic scientific research about our planet.  A significant part of this research can only be done by NASA.  Should it be a priority?  Absolutely.  Will it inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers?  Of course it will.

About the Author: Joseph R. Dwyer is a Professor at the Department of Physics and the Space Science Center in the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire.