Scientific discoveries in space teach us about our place in the universe and lead us to contemplate the interaction of humans and nature. The great engineering accomplishments of Apollo, the Space Shuttle, Voyager, the Mars rovers, and the International Space Station are beacons of accomplishment that show us what we can do. They inspire us with a “can do” attitude and a faith that we can solve the most difficult problems if we really try.
The most daunting challenge we confront today is global warming, and space is on the front lines of humanity’s struggle to cope with it.
The Planetary Society is doing its part to take on this challenge, advocating for increased monitoring of Earth from space. The most recent issue of The Planetary Report is entitled Riders on the Earth Together, and features articles by leading Earth scientists on this subject. We unveiled this special issue at a breakfast briefing in the U.S. Capitol – with Bill Nye the Science Guy, our Vice-President; Charlie Kennel, former Director of Scripps Oceanographic Institute and the newly appointed Director of the National Academy of Sciences Space Studies Board; Berrien Moore, Director of the new think-tank Climate Central; and Mary Kicza, Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services at NOAA. The briefing was organized in cooperation with the House Committee on Science and Technology.
Sadly, much of the past decade’s rhetoric about global warming has been based on political and ideological assumptions. But at our breakfast Kennel and Moore showed that data is not ideological, and that it tells us that global warming is a reality — whether it is caused by humans or not. It is affecting our world, and must be observed, monitored, and understood. Kennel and Moore also presented data showing a convincing correlation between carbon increase in the atmosphere and human activity. Carbon increase can’t be good, and so it too must be monitored and correlated with other global change effects.
Space observations play a critical role in tracking the ongoing changes in our planet’s ecosystem. Earth-observing satellites can monitor the temperature and carbon levels in the atmosphere, on land and in the oceans, in a way that no Earth-based instruments can. Kennel and Moore described how Earth observation missions have been cut back by NASA and NOAA in recent years and much work needs to be done to make up for lost time.
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All speakers noted the increasing international activity in Earth monitoring. Kennel noted that ESA has now become a leader in Earth observations, and all the speakers discussed the importance of international cooperation in the Global Earth Observations System of Systems (GEOSS). They cited the need not just to improve national programs, but also to strengthen the international cooperation. Kicza, who is the U.S. representative to GEOSS, also discussed the system’s role in facilitating international coordination. In turn, The Planetary Society will focus on raising public awareness of GEOSS and of international cooperation in Earth observations
Kennel also argued that cooperation in space often leads to international cooperation on difficult political issues. This was the case when Russia was invited to join the International Space Station. It was also a conclusion at The Planetary Society Stanford University workshop, entitled Examining the Vision. I believe this will be important to the next U.S. Administration. Whoever leads it, McCain or Obama, has promised increase attention to international cooperation in monitoring global climate change and understanding the Earth.
International alliances are just one of the many alliances required for successful space missions. Whether we are talking of human and robotic exploration or of monitoring the Earth, no one nation or organization can go it alone. As our session in Congress proceeded, I was struck by the attendance in the room and the many alliances it demonstrated – alliances involving governments, industries, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations (like us).
Recently we joined both the Alliance for Earth Observations and the Coalition for Space Exploration, two groups that primarily represent the aerospace industry. In fact, aerospace giant Northrop Grumman graciously provided sponsorship to our special Planet Earth issue of The Planetary Report and to our Congressional event. Notably, Northrop Grumman’s President, Alexis Livanos, has been a major spokesperson about the national security implications of global warming. But while reaching out to industry groups we are also staying close to our nonprofit roots: We are currently engaged in forming a new Space Subcommittee of the Committee of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), affiliated with the United Nations in Vienna. I believe such partnerships and alliances with different types of groups are essential if we are to continue to play a significant role in the ever expanding field of space.