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Why It's Important That NASA Studies Both Earth and Outer Space


The research that the United States' space agency conducts on climate, geography and topography, among other topics, has far-reaching applications. NASA/Getty Images
The research that the United States' space agency conducts on climate, geography and topography, among other topics, has far-reaching applications. NASA/Getty Images

Back in April 1960, when NASA was just two years old, one of its early achievements was to launch the Television Infrared Observation Satellite into orbit. Just five hours after the launch, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gazed at the first TV image of the earth taken from space, and called the TIROS satellite "a marvelous development."

TIROS is just part of the space agency's long history of conducting Earth science — that is, research about our own planet's atmosphere, land and oceans — in addition to its more well-known role probing the cosmos. But that focus on our own planet may soon come to an end. Bob Walker, a senior adviser on space policy to President-elect Donald Trump, recently sent shock waves through the scientific establishment when when he told the Guardian that Trump intended to dismantle NASA's Earth science program.

"We see NASA in an exploration role, in deep space research," Walker told the British newspaper. What he called "Earth-centric science" which costs about $2 billion annually — slightly more than a third of NASA's $5.6 billion budget — should instead be performed by other agencies, he said.

Many critics viewed the move as intended mostly to shut down NASA's climate research, which has helped document the extent to which human activity — in particular, the burning of fossil fuels — has driven an unprecedented rapid rise in global warming. Trump, who has promised to expand oil, coal and gas production, once tweeted that the concept of global warming was "created by and for the Chinese" to hurt U.S. manufacturing. In the Guardian interview, Walker derided climate research as "heavily politicized."

"Only a very naive person could believe that an attack on NASA's climate programs has any motive other than to intimidate and suppress efforts by scientists to explain the unwelcome reality of climate change," says physicist and science historian Spencer Weart via email.

But whatever the motivation, scientists say that shutting down NASA's Earth science efforts would have other, far-reaching consequences as well. The agency's satellites use their vantage point to perform a wide range of research, from measuring the salinity of the oceans and the impact of flooding on soil in Texas to the effects of volcanoes and wildfires on the world's ecosystems. (Here's a list of NASA's various Earth science efforts.)

NASA's Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that Earth science data generated by NASA satellites is important for helping farmers, the construction sector, your local weather reporter, and other parts of the U.S. economy.

That includes efforts such as NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission, which has used satellites to map the earth's gravity and study how it — and the earth's surface — has changed over time. While GRACE data is used to study climate effects such as changes in glaciers and polar ice sheets, Ekwurzel notes that it also provides information for the National Spatial Reference System. NSRS is a system that coordinates, among other things, accurate information on elevations throughout the U.S. Having that sort of database is crucial for the construction industry and the infrastructure rebuilding projects that Trump envisions, Ekwurzel says. And while on the campaign trail, Trump indicated he may want to fix infrastructure before focusing on space exploration — and so cutting NASA's Earth science funding would run counter to that goal.

"When you build, you've got to make sure that the water and sewer lines are flowing downhill," Ekwurzel explains. "That all depends upon accurate elevation." And that's no easy trick. While it might seem that the height and slope of the landscape are fixed things, in reality those measurements shift over time due to dynamic changes within the Earth itself. "If we were to lose the ability to detect those changes, surveying would become a lot more difficult," she says. NASA's data might be collected in orbit, "but it comes down to someone building a building or a road or a bridge."

Walker told the Guardian that NASA's Earth science efforts could be relocated to other parts of the U.S. government. But as Ekwurzel notes, NASA already works closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Army Corps of Engineers and an assortment of other agencies, all of which still would have to come to NASA for help. Unlike them, "NASA has the knowledge and the ability to launch satellites," she points out. 

Weart thinks that if Trump shuts down NASA's Earth science program, much of what it provides won't shift to another agency — we'll just lose it. "There is much historical experience to show that when a flourishing science program is shut down, much is lost beyond recovery," he says. "The expertise and personal relationships built up over many years are a precious resource. Even if all the funding is transferred elsewhere — and experience shows this is rarely the case — it would take decades to rebuild the community experience that is so essential for the difficult task of scientific research."



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