2009-04-03

NASA Reneges on Transparency - Still No DSCOVR Documents

It was welcome news last month when Congress committed $9 million to refurbish the long-overdue Deep Space Climate Observatory

(DSCOVR). Good start. So how about some information to go with it?

Desmog blog readers will recall the long and fruitless quest to wring documents out of NASA about the bizarre story of the DSCOVR spacecraft. This $100 million instrument was fully completed eight years ago yet has been sitting in a box in Maryland ever since.

DSCOVR was designed to directly measure climate change for the first time ever by observing our warming planet from the unique vantage of the Lagrange Point - one million miles towards the Sun.

The climate denial industry has been regularly harping on the unreliability of low Earth orbit satellite data for years. Strange then, how the very experiment that could resolve such issues was mothballed – over the strenuous objections of dozens of leading researchers.

I struggled for over a year to extract any kind of internal documents from NASA using the Freedom of Information Act and got nowhere. After 11 months of stonewalling, the space agency elected to withhold an unknown number of documents due to some very bizarre rationales. I appealed later in 2007 and was also turned down.

Then Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.... One of his first actions, only one day after inauguration was to issue a memorandum to the heads of every federal agency directing them to err on the side of disclosure and openness. The legally binding statement ordered among other things that:

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve.

What a breath of fresh air. I decided to take President Obama at his word and re-submit my FOIA request to NASA the next day.

To make it easy on the beleaguered space agency, I kept the wording almost identical. In effect, all they would have to do is look at the already collected documents from my original request, glance at the presidential directive from Mr. Obama and release most or all of the long-withheld documents.

So what happened next? Absolutely nothing.

More than two months have gone by and I haven’t heard a peep from NASA in spite of numerous emails asking for an update on the status of my request. Maybe they didn’t get the memo…

Alas there was another directive just last week from the new Attorney General Eric Holder, overturning a draconian directive from John Ashcroft in the wake of 9-11. This new policy again instructs the heads of all federal agencies to pull back the veil of secrecy that has plagued the US government for years. Specifically, this policy states:

“The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, reflects our nation's fundamental commitment to open government. This memorandum is meant to underscore that commitment and to ensure that it is realized in practice.”

Holder also makes it clear that hiding behind legal technicalities is unacceptable:

“An agency should not withhold records merely because it can demonstrate, as a technical matter, that the records fall within the scope of a FOIA exemption.”

That bureaucratic game playing is a thing of the past:

“FOIA professionals should be mindful of their obligation to work "in a spirit of cooperation" with FOIA requesters, as President Obama has directed. Unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles have no place in the "new era of open Government" that the President has proclaimed.”

The Attorney General also demands that requests be handled as quickly as possible:

“When information not previously disclosed is requested, agencies should make it a priority to respond in a timely manner. Timely disclosure of information is an essential component of transparency. Long delays should not be viewed as an inevitable and insurmountable consequence of high demand.”

In light of all that, my question to NASA is quite simply: where are my documents??

I have been more than patient for the last two months, filed a very modest request that does not require any additional document searches, and have made several failed attempts to get an update on the status of FOIA request FOIA-09-070.

The ball is your court NASA. What do you have to hide?

2009-02-28

DSCOVR Finally to Fly?!

Long-time readers know how much cyber-ink I have spilled trying to save the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). This work may finally be over.

The Omnibus Appropriations Bill 1105, just passed yesterday by the US Congress contains the following fateful statement on page 141:

"The bill provides $9,000,000 for NASA to refurbish and ensure flight and operational readiness of DSCOVR earth science instruments.”

Holy crap.

Details remain sketchy but it seems that the loony idea to strip the spacecraft of all Earth observing instruments has gone by the wayside.

More importantly, the passage of this bill means that DSCOVR may finally be on its way into space where it will return vital data about our warming world.

To recap, this fully completed $100 million climate observing spacecraft has so far sat in a box in Maryland for the last eight years. Dr Robert Park summed up the feeling of many in the scientific community when he described DSCOVR as “the most important thing we could be doing in space right now”.

Why? DSCOVR would gaze back towards Earth from the unique vantage of one million miles towards the sun – an entirely new way of doing space-based research.

While much remarkable science continues to be done from low Earth orbit, it is like trying to map an elephant using a microscope. Being so close to our planet means most satellites only see the Earth in thin strips, and vital numbers relating to climate change still do not add up.

After spending billions of dollars, researchers remain unable to close Earth’s outgoing radiation budget closer than 6 watts per square meter – that "noise" in the data is almost six times larger than the effect of climate change we are trying to see.

DSCOVR would instead see Earth from almost 1,000 times farther away with a continuous view of the entire sunlit side of our planet. This would provide DSCOVR much more accurate data on our planet’s changing albedo - a vital measurement to resolve the energy budget of our planet. DSCOVR would also better calibrate billions of dollars of space hardware now in low Earth orbit.

More importantly, DSCOVR would for the first time allow us to directly measure global warming - something that is routinely questioned by so-called "skeptics". One would think resovling such weighty issues would be a scientific priority but this mission has been mired in politics from day one.

First there was the partisan political reaction to Al Gore’s promotion of the project in the 1990’s. Then perhaps some office politics within NASA. Let’s not forget Bush’s meddling in the mandate of NASA.

Yet the mission was so important to the scientific community that both Russia and France offered to launch the spacecraft themselves. The answer from NASA? No thanks.

Another US agency wanted the mission transferred to them. The answer from NASA? No Thanks.

I filed numerous Freedom of Information requests to NASA, NOAA, and the Whitehouse to try and get to the bottom of this mystery. These dragged on months beyond legal timelines and virtually all internal documents were withheld.

NASA brass may also have misled the media about the true costs of launching DSCOVR.

Meanwhile the scientific community rallied support for the mission, outraged that such a vital experiment could be built and then discarded for political reasons. Some of these researchers have seemingly made it their life's work to see this mission completed, working tirelessly behind the scenes to overcome political and funding roadblocks.

Progress was slow and fitful.

Last year, Congress ordered NASA to come up with a plan to deal with DSCOVR with 180 days (deadline is this April).

Then came word of a bizarre plan where NASA would give the spacecraft to Air Force, after stripping it of all Earth observing instruments. This might have provided a convenient way to satisfy the legal requirement to Congress, while ensuring that the spacecraft was useless for what it was designed to do: measuring the energy budget of our warming world.

Last year, I shared some remarkable revelations from a NASA insider, including that the project may have been killed by Dick Cheney personally.

I was also contacted by the prestigious journal Nature, which later ran a story on the mired mission.

Why has there been such resistance to launching DSCOVR - a spacecraft fully completed at a cost of more that $100 million? In the absence of documents (which so far have been denied through freedom of information), we can only speculate but the politics of oil cannot be far from this bizarre story. Rest assured, I will keep digging.

Thankfully, the drama seems to be drawing to a close. The nation is under new management and we are hopefully entering an era of politics that is not so pathologically hostile to climate science.

The many dedicated scientists that never gave up on this vital experiment must be heartened by this week's events. DSCOVR is still a long way from flying into space – the $9 million is only to refurbish the Earth observing instruments, not to launch or operate the mission. The bill must also pass the Senate.

That said, what just happened in Washington might finally be the turning point in a long fight to save the spacecraft that could save the world.

2008-12-02

“DSCOVR killed by Cheney” - NASA Insider

An unnamed source within NASA intimately familiar with the mothballed Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission spoke to me on the condition of anonymity.

The story is incredible.

The big question has always been: who would want to kill a $100 million fully completed climate satellite that has sat in a box since the 2000 presidential election - even though dozens of leading scientists have demanded it be launched?

“Apparently Cheney was the hatchet man”, said the source. “Bush tried the keep his hands clean so he didn’t have direct involvement. It almost reminds me of the way Nixon used to operate…He assigned Cheney to be the hatchet man job on DSCOVR… Bush’s fingerprints weren’t on it but Cheney’s were… That’s what we heard through the grapevine.”

Our source did not want their identity revealed due to the pervasive culture of fear that permeates NASA under the Bush Administration: “People are somewhat intimidated – but it will all unravel. People will talk. It will come out. These things always do.”

So why would the Bush Administration want DSCOVR dead?

Our source offered these thoughts:

“The reputation in early days was that Al Gore thought of it, so when Bush was elected the mission basically just disappeared. It never got launched. And that had never happened at NASA before…That’s what so weird about it. The people at NASA Headquarters, the ones who won’t return your phone calls and won’t talk about it - their position is that this is just a normal course of events. It’s really strange. They are obviously covering something up.”

Beyond Gore, there was also the issue that DSCOVR would further our understanding of climate change - something the Bush Administration was never keen on. According to our source:

“The Whitehouse...felt threatened by [DSCOVR]. They didn’t want to hear anything about the Earth changing because that meant climate change, and that means CO2 and then they would have to regulate CO2 and they just wanted to avoid anything to do with that… Cheney was the chief hatch man on climate change in general. That’s the rumor that went around.”

Of course there is little chance of finding hard evidence of Whitehouse interference in this mission. I have filed numerous freedom of information requests with NASA, NOAA and the Whitehouse but came up with almost nothing. The Whitehouse is not even subject to FOIA anymore. Virtually all internal documents related to the DSCOVR mission have been kept secret.

Our source is not surprised: “That’s going to be really hard to nail because Cheney is deleting all his emails.”

It turns out that the mission was always a weird one. The NASA leadership insisted from the start that this spacecraft fly into orbit aboard the space shuttle. Those close to the mission were incredulous.

“There was the stupidity of putting it one the shuttle. That was just absolutely silly. You don’t launch satellites to that high of an orbit on the shuttle. The normal NASA tradition is to launch a satellite like that on a rocket.”

Because DSCOVR had to go far beyond the low Earth orbit accessible by the shuttle, a large rocket motor would need to fly aboard the shuttle to boost DSCOVR to L1 one million miles distant. Not a good idea.

“A big rocket motor with its fuel tanks filled is basically a bomb. Using the shuttle as a carrier for what is basically a bomb is not smart. It was absolutely stupid from the get-go.”

So why was the mission forced onto the shuttle?

“There’s no good reason. NASA will give you reasons but there’s actually no good reason. It was a very strange decision. It was a decision that the science team tried to fight but were never able to even get to first base on,” said our source.

They were told by NASA brass ‘we’re going to launch it on the shuttle and that’s that and don’t talk to us about it and stop complaining’”.

Our source also provides a chilling insider account of how the spacecraft was on track to be launched by another agency as late as last year, but was abruptly cancelled.

“It seemed that everything was on track to give the satellite to NOAA and they would be refurbish and launch it and then - boom. It just disappeared off the radar screen and no one would talk about it. It was very weird. It gave me the creeps actually. I’ve never seen that happen at NASA before, where things would disappear and no one would talk about them. It was like the way people would disappear in a dictatorship regime.”

Our source made no bones about the importance of this novel experiment to provide continuous monitoring of the daytime and nighttime profiles of our planet.

While DSCOVR’s destination L1 is one million miles towards the sun, there is another gravitational parking spot called L2 away from the Sun. If a similar spacecraft were also placed there, scientists would have simultaneous views of the both the daytime and nighttime profiles of our warming planet.

“Those two points would have been revolutionary for doing remote sensing of the Earth. All our satellites are in Sun-synchronous orbit meaning that they pass over the same time every day. So you have no way of getting information about the so-called diurnal cycle. DCSOVR and another satellite at L2 would mean the whole Earth would be covered.”

This combination of DSCOVR at L1 and similar spacecraft at L2 would also allow scientists to resolve glaring gaps in our understanding of the Earth’s energy budget and our understanding of global warming.

“Low Earth orbit satellites are not able to close the Earth’s outgoing radiation budget. It’s pretty far off - it’s quite an embarrassment… They can’t close the Earth’s radiation budget better than six watts per square meter. We have every reason to believe to that the Earth is out of balance by only one watt for square meter, which accounts the global warming. It was so embarrassing they kept it quiet for a while”

DSCOVR would not only solve that important problem but also provide a completely new perspective for NASA to carry out their important mandate of monitoring our changing planet.

“It would have been significant because it would mean that NASA was finally getting out of low Earth orbit, where they’re stuck. NASA doesn’t have any high Earth orbit satellites, not geostationary, not L1, not L2. It’s very weird. “

You would think that resolving the Earth’s energy budget at this point in history would be a priority for NASA, especially given they have a perfectly good $100 million instrument sitting in a box that would help them do that. But I digress…

NASA leadership have also frequently relied on the so-called Decadal Survey as a rationale for killing DSCOVR. This study was an effort to prioritize potential NASA missions for the next ten years. DSCOVR was not prominently featured in this assessment, but our source is not surprised.

“All the people involved in the Decadal Survey knew what NASA’s attitude toward DCSOVR was. They weren’t going to take on a political hot potato, why should they? It wasn’t that they thought it was a bad idea, it’s that they were politically sensitive… So they ignored it. So for NASA now to use their ignoring it as an argument against it is really hypocritical frankly.”

For some reason DSCOVR was also included in this assessment even though it was already built at a cost $100 million, something our source feels is incredible.

“It’s putting DSCOVR in the same hopper as un-built missions. And that’s kind of silly… It didn’t really need to be ranked by the decadal survey. Suppose every mission that NASA built was then subjected of to a panel of scientists to decide whether to launch it or not? That would be kind of silly wouldn’t it? The whole thing is just sheer hypocrisy.

What about the peculiar notion of the Air Force launching DSCOVR without the earth observing instruments as a way to save money? Our source it at a loss as to why NASA would ever consider doing that.

“That’s just bizarre… The instruments would have to be refurbished but NASA gave some ridiculously outsized estimate of what it would cost to do that. It was like ten times too high, in order to kill the idea of having Earth viewing instruments. There have been a lot of shenanigans around this mission. It’s embarrassing for me personally because I used to have huge respect for NASA and I’ve lost some. I’ve seen people do stuff that I would never thought I would see people do.”

Our contact was cautiously hopeful that things at NASA may change in the future.

“The Whitehouse created a climate of fear within government and that was intentional. But the administration is changing… Once Bush is truly out, things will start to unravel. Eventually the whole crowd at NASA headquarters will change and then there might be a new a spirit of openness. Or they might want to just bury the past and move on…”

And what about DSCOVR?

“It’s sad for NASA that they are stuck trying the trash DSCOVR when it’s actually a great idea…They hate it so much at this point that they are determined to put it in a box and keep it there forever…They’re just trying the figure out how to bury it.”

I will of course continue digging on DSCOVR to make sure that doesn’t happen. The cone of silence around this fascinating story is starting to crumble but the clock is ticking bring out the truth before the spacecraft is destroyed.

If anyone else close to this mission has information to share, Please contact me here in confidence. It will be our little secret…

2008-11-25

DSCOVR Article in Nature

I was contacted this month by Nature – the most prestigious science journal in the world – about my latest posting on the Deep Space Climate Observatory.

It seems their editors were interested in the news I broke that the Air Force was considering launching this $100 million mothballed spacecraft – minus the Earth observing instruments.

Last week they published an 800 word article based on information I provided to them about this bizarre story.

Alas, my extensive research on the DSCOVR mission was not mentioned in the Nature article, but such is the lot of a blogger.

More importantly, the exposure provided by this piece in one of the premier journals in the world will hopefully light a fire under NASA to not to kill this vital mission.

According to Nature, NASA “is now in talks with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Air Force about finally getting the probe off the ground. But the negotiations might mean that the spacecraft loses its Earth-observing instruments and instead goes into orbit with a remit to stare only at the Sun. An Earth-observing satellite that can see the whole planet is described as 'crucial' to climate research."

Lead researchers pull no punches when asked about the idiotic idea of blinding the spacecraft by removing the Earth observing instruments prior to launch.

“Stripping the two Earth-monitoring systems from DSCOVR to save money is an "appalling" idea, says Francisco Valero, the mission's principal investigator at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.”

The piece goes on to describe the unique perspective that DSCOVR would provide researchers studying climate change.

“Satellites in low-Earth orbit make similar energy measurements but can observe only small sections of Earth at a time. DSCOVR would offer a "global, rather than myopic, perspective of the planet", Valero says. One of its Earth-monitoring instruments, a spectroradiometer, would indirectly measure variables such as ozone levels, aerosols, cloud thickness and water vapour. The other, a radiometer, would measure reflected and emitted radiation for the whole planet.”

However the clock is ticking on saving this mission from powerful people that want to destroy the spacecraft. Many scientists are starting to publicly voice their support for this critical mission and the data it would provide from vantage of Lagrangian point L1, one million miles away.

"In March 2008, the Ernst Strüngmann Foundation in Frankfurt, Germany, held an invitation-only forum for 44 top climate scientists. Many participants, none of whom was directly involved with DSCOVR, agreed that satellite observations of Earth from L-1 are essential for assessing changes in cloud cover and climate.”

I will continue to rake up more muck on this incredible story, and it seems like we are getting somewhere. My last posting on DSCOVR at Desmog Blog.com was read 32,000 times.

2008-05-23

Congress Orders Action on DSCOVR

In a stunning break from years of inaction, the US Congress has tabled legislation ordering NASA to finally deal with the critically important Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2008 was submitted last week to the House of Representatives. Section 207 of this Act is plainly entitled: “Plan For Disposition Of Deep Space Climate Observatory.

You can bet certain NASA bigwigs are not happy about this remarkable development.

So far the nation's space agency brass has consistently refused to release any internal documents on why they canceled such vital mission, even after spending over $100 million of taxpayer’s money building it. They may have misled the media about the costs of launching the mission. They also apparently refused to respond to another US government agency that wants to take over the mission, at minimal cost to NASA.

If this Act becomes law, NASA is finally going to have to start coughing up some answers. First NASA must break their years of silence on this mothballed mission and come up with a plan that will:

“Include such options as using the parts of the spacecraft in the development and assembly of other science missions, transferring the spacecraft to another agency, reconfiguring the spacecraft for another Earth science mission, establishing a public-private partnership for the mission, and entering into an international cooperative partnership to use the spacecraft for its primary or other purposes. The plan shall include an estimate of budgetary resources and schedules required to implement each of the options.”


Next, NASA will be forced to consult with the myriad of other US agencies and foreign governments that have volunteered to launch this mission themselves or in partnership with a clearly disinterested NASA leadership.

Specifically, NASA must: “Consult, as necessary, with other Federal agencies, industry, academic institutions, and international space agencies in developing the plan.”

Lastly, NASA must report to both the congress and senate within 180 days of the passage of the Act, what their mandated plans are for DSCOVR.

This is a major development in this strange story. For the uninitiated, DSCOVR is already built at a cost of over $100 million to NASA yet has remained mothballed for years, due ostensibly to “competing priorities.”

Dozens of leading scientists were outraged by this decision and wrote letters expressing their support for this critically important mission.

DSCOVR is designed to view the planet from the unique vantage point of one million miles distant, and many of these scientists believe it would immediately settle any remaining honest debate on the origins or seriousness of global warming.

My muck-raking investigation earlier this year showed that this mission could be launched and operated at a cost to NASA of only $55 million – less than 0.3% of NASA’s annual budget.

Last week, I showed that the Whitehouse Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), had a number of “predecisional draft documents that include OSTP’s deliberative comments” relating to the DSCOVR mission.

The Whitehouse refused to release these documents in spite of my Freedom of Information request. Why the Bush administration was involved in consultations about the mission is anyone’s guess, but it does raise some interesting questions...

Was DSCOVR ash-canned by George Bush ?

Partisan beltway politics?

Office politics within the space agency?

We may never know the real reasons why such a vitally important scientific mission like DSCOVR was plagued by so much politics, but I certainly have my suspicions.

In the meantime, this very welcome action from Congress may mean that DSCOVR will finally break free of it’s Earthly bonds and be launched one million miles towards the sun.

Then we will finally be able to accurately measure the energy budget of our warming planet – widely regarded as the most pressing problem facing humanity today. Who could possibly object to that?

This piece was published on DeSmog blog on May 21, 2008.

2008-05-13

Whitehouse Withholds DSCOVR Documents

The Bush Whitehouse continues to stonewall around the critically important Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

I recently received a long-overdue response to a freedom of information request about the mission. After waiting six months, thirteen documents were located – and all were withheld from release.

So why did the Whitehouse even have "predecisional draft documents that include...deliberative comments" about the DSCOVR mission? Does this indicate the Bush administration had a direct hand in killing this project?

NASA strangely mothballed this unique spacecraft after spending over $100 million building it. It remains fully completed and in a box at the Goddard Space Center in Maryland. Senior scientists believe this spacecraft could almost immediately resolve any remaining honest debate about the seriousness or causes of climate change.

An investigation by DeSmog Blog earlier this year showed that this mission could be launched and operated at a cost to NASA of only $55 million – less than 0.3% of NASA’s annual budget.

I have been digging for answers on this strange case since 2006. Last October I filed freedom of information request to the Whitehouse Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Executive Office of the President. This seems to be the only office at the Whitehouse that is still subject to Freedom of information legislation.

As usual, nothing happened for months and I emailed them several times to find out what was going on. Government bodies have a duty to respond to requests within 20 working days. By now it was close to 120.

At this point I had not even received an acknowledgement letter. It finally arrived last month. And guess what? They withheld all the documents touching on or relating to the DSCOVR mission.

Specifically, Whitehouse Deputy General Counsel Rachael Leonard stated that their office had “found 13 responsive documents, however, eight of these documents are being withheld pursuant to FOIA exemptions (b)(5) and (b)(2). Specifically, these documents are predecisional draft documents that include OSTP’s deliberative comments, and as such are exempt from disclosure under FOIA exemption (b)(5).”

The other five documents were withheld by the OSTP because they “have been referred to other agencies for their review”.

In other words after six months of delay, the Whitehouse has refused to release any documents relating to DSCOVR.

All of which begs the question, why does the Whitehouse even have any documents relating to the DSCOVR mission? Especially,“predecisional draft documents that include OSTP’s deliberative comments”? What possible comments or input could the Whitehouse have on a specific NASA project like DCSOVR?

Lets have a closer look at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. It is headed by Dr. John Marburger, who has in the past seemed an apologist for the Bush Administration, in response to charges from the scientific community that the Whitehouse manipulates climate science to downplay the dangers of climate change.

Many in the science community are critical of Marbuger for his seeming complicity in scientific censorship.

A report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists stated that "the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented."

A second report in 2007 surveyed 1600 climate scientists in the US and found that “nearly half of all respondents (46 percent) perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words "climate change," "global warming," or other similar terms from a variety of communications.

Marburger himself seems to be taking his marching orders from George Bush to realign NASA’s space programs to focus on missions that will benefit America’s economy rather than the advancement of science, such as climate change.

In a keynote address he gave at NASA headquarters in 2006, he stated:

“As I see it, questions about the vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not. Our national policy, declared by President Bush and endorsed by Congress last December in the NASA authorization act, affirms that, ‘The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.’ So at least for now the question has been decided in the affirmative.”

The DSCOVR mission hardly fits that bill. It is primarily designed to accurately measure the energy budget of our warming planet - for the first time ever.


In contrast, the Bush administration seems much more interested in having NASA mine the moon - and actively suppressing rather than advancing climate science.

One thing is certain – this administration is not shy about imposing its will on the scientific community.


Would the thirteen documents withheld by the Whitehouse prove that the Bush administration killed the DSCOVR mission? We may never know, but I will keep digging.

This was published on Desmog blog on May 13, 2008.

2008-04-22

Did NASA Mislead the Media About the DSCOVR Climate Project?

New information provided by inside sources to DeSmogBlog raises questions about public statements from NASA when asked by the media about the cost of launching Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

The date was January 24, 2008. Four NASA senior brass had just finished delivering a rambling one hour news briefing on their much-maligned Earth sciences program - noteworthy only in that there was no news. No new announcements. No new missions.

Seth Borenstein, the science reporter for Associated Press rose to ask the first question, specifically about why NASA had not launched DSCOVR.

This spacecraft is already built at a cost of over $100 million to NASA yet has remained mothballed for years, due ostensibly to “competing priorities.” DSCOVR is designed to view the planet from the unique vantage point of one million miles distant, and according to leading researchers would immediately settle any remaining debate on the origins or seriousness of global warming.

NASA Associate Administrator Alan Stern responded to Mr. Borenstein’s pointed question by saying that it was largely a matter of money:

The analysis that I have seen indicates that its about a $200 million project to bring the satellite back to readiness for flight, to do the launch, and the flight mission.”
$200 million seems like a lot. Was Mr. Borenstein told the truth? Perhaps not.

It seems there is a 193-page document dated February 2006 entitled “Solar Wind Trade Study” that details to cost of refurbishing, launching and operating DSCOVR in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Interestingly, the document was neither released nor referenced in any of the materials accessed through recent freedom of information requests, either to NASA or NOAA.

For the record, I had requested “any records, reports, correspondence, emails, memos, minutes, or other documents whatsoever touching on, or relating to the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) from the period January 1, 2000 to the present.”

However, sources close to the mission have confirmed the document exists and provided selected details of its contents. DeSmog Blog is of course happy to share these details with the entire world.

In 2006, NOAA requested that the mission be transferred to them. NASA has never responded. This report was pivotal to this request and explored three cost sharing scenarios between NOAA and NASA to launch and operate DSCOVR.

The cheap scenario would see DSCOVR fly on a Ukrainian Tsyklon rocket – the most reliable launch vehicle in the world. The total cost of this mission would be around $80 million to launch and operate DSCOVR for five years.

The catch is that this bare bones scenario would only allow DSCOVR to monitor solar storms to provide early warning for low earth orbit satellites from space weather. This scenario would not provide funding for DSCOVR to monitor the Earth.

The medium cost scenario would see DSCOVR launched on an American-built Space X rocket at a cost of approximately $55 million to NASA and the remainder covered by NOAA. This would pay for refurbishing, launching and operating DSCOVR for five years and include the important Earth-monitoring and climate measurements that spacecraft was designed to do.

The high-cost scenario involves launching DSCOVR on a Delta rocket at a cost of about $160 million, shared between NASA and NOAA.

NASA has reasons to oppose option one, including a bureaucratic requirement to “fly American”, both for personnel receiving NASA funding, and its spacecraft. Even if the Tsyklon is a better, cheaper, more reliable launch vehicle than anything produced in the US, this option is a non-starter for the pencil pushers in NASA HQ.

However option two would not be verboten, given that the Space X rocket is built in US. This would only cost NASA a mere $55 million, not $200 million as Alan Stern told Seth Borenstein at the January NASA news briefing.

To put this in perspective, the $55 million it would cost NASA to refurbish, launch and operate DSCOVR for five years is a mere 0.3% of NASA’s annual budget. It is also less than 3% of what the space agency spends every year on the International Space Station – an orbiting installation that has been derided by many in the scientific community as entirely useless.

So why didn’t NASA brass share this with Mr. Borenstein?

Why wasn’t this report released (or referenced) in materials provided to Desmog Blog through freedom of information requests addressed to NASA, NOAA or the Whitehouse?

What exactly are these government agencies trying to hide?

DeSmog Blog will keep digging for information on this critical issue. Stay tuned…

This was published on Desmog Blog on April 18, 2008.

2008-03-26

Revealed - Bush Killed DSCOVR Mission

Fresh documents accessed from the US government show the George Bush had a direct hand in killing the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

In one of three badly redacted letters - released after a delay more than three times longer than the legal limit - NASA's Associate Administrator for Earth Science, Ghassem Asrar, says: "Due to Space Shuttle manifesting constraints recently directed by the President, the DSCOVR mission is currently without a launch opportunity” (my emphasis).

This critical spacecraft was designed to monitor the energy budget of the planet from the unique vantage of 1 million miles away. NASA strangely canceled the project after spending over $100 million building it. Prominent members of the scientific community were outraged at the decision. You can view their laundry list of letters here.

Another US government agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), requested that NASA transfer the mission to them. Not only did NASA not provide to spacecraft, they did not even respond to the request.

Last fall, I filed a freedom of information request to NOAA to shed some light on this mystery. As usual, the documents were several months overdue and heavily censored. However, what was released reveals how George Bush’s Whitehouse is interfering in NASA’s science program, and suppressing climate science.

In a letter dated August 31, 2004, Dr. Robert Charlson expresses his frustration to a colleague at the University of New Hampshire:
“I have exchanged several letters with NASA Headquarters about DSCOVR, and am concerned that I can’t get a straight answer from them…We have spent a lot of money and personal effort to establish EOS [NASA’s Earth Observing System] and it’s associated programs and it would be tragic to cut them off before they can bear fruit. To further constrain our research field would indicate that NASA headquarters may be deliberately trying to de-emphasize climate science.”

Dr. Charlson makes the scientific importance of DSCOVR plain in another letter addressed to NASA headquarters:

“Again, I urge you to press the case for launching and operating DSCOVR so that we in the scientific community can make real progress towards understanding climate and the impacts human activity on it. Without it, will continue to be stuck with excessive uncertainties and dependence upon assumptions instead of data.”

In response to Dr. Charlson’s plea for action, Associate Administrator for Earth Science Ghassem Asrar reveals that DSCOVR was nixed by NASA due to directions from the Whitehouse:

“It is widely recognized that the science offered by DSCOVR would help make possible an integrated self-consistent global database for studying the extent of regional and global climate change. Due to Space Shuttle manifesting constraints recently directed by the President, the DSCOVR mission is currently without a launch opportunity.”

By 2005, NASA was through pretending this mission would ever fly under their watch. Associate Administrator Dr. Mary Cleave stated plainly in a letter dated December 2005:

“Restrictions for the remaining Space Shuttle missions continue to preclude remainfesting DSCOVR for launch, a situation that is not expected to change…Unfortunately, the significant funding required to ready and launch DSCOVR within the context of competing priorities and the state of the budget for the foreseeable future precludes continuation of the project.”

These letters provide clear evidence that at the very least, George Bush’s Mars mission boondoggle helped killed DSCOVR. However, there is much that remains a mystery.

If the decision to kill DSCOVR is simply about money, why won’t NASA allow another US government agency launch it? Why are NASA, NOAA and the Whitehouse so secretive about releasing the documents relating to DSCOVR? If NASA is serious about climate research, why would they mothball a project so important to the scientific community, citing “competing priorities”? Is this another example of NASA trying to silence climate science?

Next posting: How NASA lied about this mission to the media.

2008-02-21

NOAA Stonewalls on DCSOVR Documents

The stonewalling on DSCOVR documents continues, this time with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

To recap, NASA was given over $100 million in taxpayers money to build the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a spacecraft designed to measure the energy budget of our warming planet from the unique vantage of a million miles away.

Even though it is fully completed over five years ago, DSCOVR is still sitting in a box at the Goddard Space Centre – likely for political reasons.

The mission was originally promoted by Al Gore – a liability when George Bush and Dick Cheney remain in the Whitehouse. DSCOVR would also immediately settle any remaining debate about the origins of climate change – a potential wrinkle for the $8 trillion oil industry. NASA is also threatened by DSCOVR because the mission could call into question the billions of dollars they have invested low Earth orbit satellites.

Low orbit satellites are useful but they fly so close to the planet it is like trying to map an elephant using a microscope. Because DSCOVR would orbit over 1,000 times farther away, it would for the first time allow us able to monitor the entire sunlit disc of our planet and resolve some glaring discrepancies in our understanding of the planet's energy budget. If DSCOVR works better than what has been done for decades, some NASA heads could roll.

DeSmog Blog has been doing an investigative series on this unique spacecraft since September and the story just keeps getting weirder.

NASA quietly killed DSCOVR in 2006 citing "competing priorities". Using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), I tried unsuccessfully for over a year to extract any internal documents from NASA about why the project was cancelled. What was released instead was letters from over thirty leading scientists expressing concern that this vital mission was not going forward. You can view them here.

Then I tried to digging documents out of the Whitehouse. If the Bush Administration had a hand in killing the mission, it seemed reasonable that there might be a paper trail. We will never know. I received a short letter from Whitehouse Deputy General Counsel F. Andrew Turley, stating:

"Please be advised that the Office of the Administration, Executive Office of the President is not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Your letter therefore is returned without further action."

Next I turned to NOAA. Last year, NOAA apparently requested that the entire mission be transferred over to them, at no cost to NASA. Strangely there has been no response from NASA. Meanwhile there is the real worry that NASA may destroy or cannibalize the spacecraft to cover their tracks.

So I filed a third information request last year, this time with NOAA. The government stonewalling has kicked in again.

My request was sent in November. I was told my documents would be emailed on December 11. Then I got call from NOAA General Counsel Hugh Schratwieser before Christmas telling me that it going to take longer than they thought but I should get the document package in early January. Mr. Schratwieser also assured me NOAA takes pride in their compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and that I shouldn't worry.

Then silence. I have since sent five unanswered emails to NOAA requesting updates on my request. Government bodies like NOAA have a legal obligation to respond to FOIA requests in 20 working days. It is now over three times that long and counting.

Since I was repeatedly told over the last two months that the package of documents was very close to being assembled, I can only assume that it is now complete but being withheld for political reasons. What could be in there that they are so worried about?

If members of media want to ask what the hold up is, I encourage them to contact Mr. Schratwieser directly at 301-713-9684.

This was published on Desmog Blog on Feb. 19th, 2008. Documents started to be released by NOAA the next day. Stay tuned...

2007-12-07

Was DSCOVR Killed By Office Politics?

NASA’s resistance to launching the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is certainly puzzling. They spent $100 million on the spacecraft. It’s finished. Two other countries and another US government agency have offered to launch it at no cost to NASA. Yet it still remains in a box.

Maybe NASA is simply cash-strapped because they have been forced to spend billions on pet political projects like the International Space Station or Bush’s manned mission to Mars.

Or maybe the Whitehouse and their oil industry backers didn’t want the climate “debate” resolved just yet.

But perhaps the real reason that DSCOVR remains Earth-bound is something much more mundane than that: office politics.

NASA, like any large institution, has some serious inertia around changing the way things are done. The important challenge of calculating the energy budget of the planet is a good example.

After spending literally billions of dollars on Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, NASA scientists still cannot resolve a significant discrepancy in the “reflected flux” of our planet.

Simply put, the amount of energy retained by Earth is the amount of energy received from the Sun, minus the amount radiated back into space in the infrared spectrum.

The first factor – the amount received from Sun - is the total energy hitting the Earth minus the amount reflected back by clouds, ice and other shiny surfaces. This measurement of “shininess” is called albedo.

Without knowing the ever-changing albedo, it is impossible to have a precise idea of how much the planet is warming up, or what is causing it. It is like trying to figure out how many people have come into a nightclub with out counting them at the door.

Therein lies the internal embarrassment for NASA. Scientists are supposed to have the answers – especially around hot button issues like climate change. Yet a paper published last year in the prestigious journal Nature demonstrated that NASA still had a glaring discrepancy in the planet’s energy balance of 4-6 watts per square metre – that is roughly two to three times the effect of atmospheric CO2.

The Low Earth Orbit researchers have had a pretty good kick at the can but they still can’t make the numbers add up. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Such “weird” phenomena are often the very things that precede scientific breakthroughs.

That’s why DSCOVR is so important. It would be observing our planet at the same time as existing LEO satellites – but from a distance of 1.5 million kilomteres away. This new perspective might help resolve this interesting problem.

DSCOVR would also compliment and help calibrate existing satellite measurements. Many of these LEO satellites cost billions and have a limited lifespan. Some of satellites in A-Train array may be lost by 2009 – adding to the urgency of getting DSCOVR launched so it can do coincident measurements of the Earth before these expensive satellites fall from the sky.

More than that, DSCOVR would be able to simultaneously monitor the energy output of the Sun while measuring temperature changes on Earth. This would almost immediately lay to rest the argument often trotted out by climate change deniers that any warming of the planet is due to fluctuations in the Sun.

Here’s the rub: if DSCOVR ever made it to L1 and did a better job at measuring the temperature of our planet, it might threaten the funding or reputations of well-established scientists that have hitched their academic wagon to low Earth orbit observations.

Could it be that the satellite that could save the world remains Earth-bound due to nothing more than academic jealously?

As they say, “never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.”

This piece was published on Desmog Blog

2007-11-20

NASA Stonewalls US Agency that Wants to Launch DSCOVR

It has now been several months since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) formally requested that NASA transfer to them all DSVOVR assets - including of course the spacecraft itself.

The response from NASA? Nothing. Nada. Zippo.

Incredibly, NASA has so far completely ignored colleagues from another US government agency that want to make use of a $100 million spacecraft that NASA themselves stated last year they have no intention of launching.

For those new to this investigative series, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is a fully completed spacecraft, that if launched, would almost immediately lay to rest any remaining legitimate debate regarding the origins of global climate change.

Strangely, this critical piece of climate science hardware has instead been sitting in a box at the Goddard Space Center for the last seven years. Last year, NASA canceled the mission altogether, citing “competing priorities”.

It seems that NOAA is so frustrated with the lack of will on the part of NASA to launch DSCOVR that they have sourced private funding to launch and operate DSCOVR themselves.

Besides ending any remaining honest debate about the most bitterly opposed scientific theory since evolution, DSCOVR would also help predict solar storms, protecting satellites worth billions of dollars from solar flares.

The US Senate Committee on Appropriations should be asking the NASA brass some hard questions about why they have chosen to ignore a formal request from another government agency.

Perhaps it might also be a reasonable that, since NASA was given $100 million in taxpayers dollars for something they did not do, and now will not let others do, they should take a $100 million haircut in their next budget request.

Next week: the real reason DSCOVR is being held prisoner.

2007-10-23

Did Bush’s Mars Plan Scuttle DSCOVR?

When the now-Nobel Laureate Al Gore proposed the DSCOVR mission way back in 1998, he was widely jeered by Republicans for interfering in the scientific business of NASA. “Gore-sat”, “Gore-cam”, and “the multi-million dollar screen saver” were all quips trotted out on the floor of the Senate and Congress in opposition to the mission.

DSCOVR was a victim of such partisan politics. Even though it is fully completed at a cost of $100 million, this unique spacecraft remains in a storage box in Maryland, rather than providing critical data on the progress of climate change.

NASA quietly cancelled DSCOVR last year, citing “competing priorities”. Perhaps the biggest of these was George Bush’s edict NASA in January 2004 to put a human on the surface of Mars.

Bush made the high-profile pronouncement at NASA headquarters as their entire staff watched by video. In an apparent effort to emulate JFK, he intoned that “human thirst for knowledge ultimately cannot be satisfied by even the most vivid pictures, or the most detailed measurements. We need to see and examine and touch for ourselves.”

Besides the fact that it is difficult to “touch” a Martian rock when you are wearing a space suit, there are two obvious questions: Where will the money come from to bankroll this massive intervention in NASA’s science program? And, is this really a worthwhile use of scarce NASA resources?

Alarmingly, the short-term money is coming directly at the expense of existing programs like the DSCOVR mission. Bush instructed NASA to pull $11 billion from their budget over five years to pay for his Mars brainstorm – almost 13% of their funding. The only additional money he promised was $1 billion over five years - everything else is the proverbial pound of flesh.

That is just for starters. The White House did not put an actual dollar value on how much this boondoggle would eventually cost – always a bad sign. What we do know is that the task of transporting humans 12,000 times as far as the Moon, though the searing radiation of empty space, and bringing them back alive is going to be pricey.

Some have estimated that Bush’s Mars announcement may cost over $1 trillion, making it the most expensive speech in history. For those of us unaccustomed to such astronomical sums of taxpayer largess, that is one thousand-billion dollars. In hundred dollar bills, it would weigh eleven thousand tons.

Supporters of the mission have derided these figures; instead saying this effort would cost a mere $229 billion. For the record, that would still pay for what the US government is spending annually on climate change research for the next 127 years.

Bear in mind that this radical surgery on NASA’s direction was apparently completed without any scientific peer review whatsoever. It instead came directly from the brain of the perhaps the most unpopular president in US history – and a man who has repeatedly scorned the scientific consensus around climate change.

As for the scientific merit of putting a human on Mars, the scientific community is less than enthused. The American Physical Society stated plainly in 2004 "shifting NASA priorities toward risky, expensive missions to the moon and Mars will mean neglecting the most promising space science efforts."

Many scientists instead feel that robotic probes are doing a good job of exploring Mars at a fraction of the cost, and are only going to get better with advancing technology. Besides the fact that they do not need food, water, air or sleep, robots also do not need to be brought 300 million miles back to Earth.

Lastly robots pose a much smaller risk of contaminating Mars with Earth-based life than astronauts. Because Mars may harbor indigenous life forms, all the probes sent to the Martian surface have to be carefully sterilized.

Humans on the other hand are repositories of billions of microorganisms in our digestive tract. If there was ever space suit failure on Mars, not only would the astronaut quickly perish, but the Red Planet would also be hopelessly contaminated with tenacious life from our world. In this way, sending humans to Mars may irrevocably damage our scientific understanding of the very place we are trying to explore.

The scientific community is very clear about the most urgent priority now facing the planet: climate change. Yet by diverting billions away from existing climate programs like DSCOVR, George Bush essentially decided that sending humans to Mars for an interplanetary photo-op is more important than tackling global warming.

How much more important? Assuming that it would cost only $229 billion to put a boot print on Mars, that is still over eleven million times as much money as it would cost to launch and operate DSCOVR – a mission described by Dr. Robert Park of the University of Maryland as “the most important thing we could be doing in space right now”.

There is little doubt at this point that George Bush is a fool. History will only elaborate on that conclusion. Yet beyond Iraq, the ballooning national debt and the loss of American soft power, perhaps his most shameful legacy will be his intransigent opposition to climate science.

As for Gore, there is a certain sweet vindication of being on the right side of history. Now all we have to do is spring his spacecraft from jail.

This was posted on Desmog Blog on October 22, 2007.

2007-10-19

Whitehouse Stonewalls DSCOVR Information Request

Digging up information on the cancellation of the DSCOVR mission has been like pulling teeth. The dental work continued this week, this time with the Whitehouse.

Last month, I filed a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) to the Office of Administration in Washington DC, asking for copies of any records "relating to the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission, formerly known as Triana, from the period January 1, 2000 to the present."

I then received this strange response from Whitehouse Deputy General Counsel F. Andrew Turley, stating:

"Please be advised that the Office of the Administration, Executive Office of the President is not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Your letter therefore is returned without further action."

Strange. I sent my letter to the Freedom of Information Act Officer for the Office of the Administration. Why would they have one if they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act?

Also, have a look at this Whitehouse website:
http://www.ostp.gov/html/_foia.html

It clearly states:

The Executive Office of the President (EOP) entities subject to the FOIA are:
Council on Environmental Quality
Office of Administration
Office of Management and Budget
Office of National Drug Control Policy
Office of Science and Technology Policy
United States Trade Representative

Then I received a call back from the Deputy General Counsel, saying that while this is confusing, the Office of the Administration is no longer subject to FOIA due to a "recent legal determination." I'm sure Dick Cheney is very happy about that. They still have a FOIA officer on staff, doing God knows what.

As more teeth come out, I will let you know.

This was posted on Desmog blog on October 18, 2007

2007-10-12

DSCOVR Debacle Part 5 - How Much Is Monitoring Climate Change Worth?

Like any government body, NASA has to decide where is best to spend it’s finite resources. These decisions aren’t easy but they are essential to ensure that the funds entrusted by the taxpayer are allocated in a coherent and thoughtful way.

Looking through that lens, it is hard to imagine how NASA saw fit to cancel DSCOVR after it was built – ostensibly due to lack of resources – when they continue to shovel literally billions of dollars at two mega projects that arguably have no scientific merit whatsoever. I speak of the International Space Station (ISS) and the proposed manned mission to Mars.

Lets start with the ISS. Conceived as a joint effort by many countries to have permanent presence in space, it has become a boondoggle that is quite literally out of this world. By 2010, the ISS will have eaten up over $130 billion dollars. That cost itself is remarkable, but more remarkable still that the ISS has lost large parts of it planned science program.

Two major initiatives, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and the Centrifugal Accommodations Module were both cancelled due to funding cuts. Instead, The ISS has focused on more mundane topics such as space-induced kidney stones and the effect of cosmic rays on the human body.

A perennial justification of orbiting astronaut housing such as the ISS is that they can be used as laboratories for the growing of novel crystals and proteins in microgravity. Yet in 2000, the National Academies of Sciences reported that, "the enormous investment in protein crystal growth on the Shuttle and Mir has not led to a single unique scientific result."

The American Physical Society also recently reaffirmed its statement originally made in 1991 that “Scientific justification is lacking for a permanently manned space station in Earth orbit."

Undeterred, this month NASA will deliver a new module to the ISS - at a cost of $2 billion - making it as big as a five-bedroom house. Dr. Robert Park, a physicist from the University of Maryland and long time critic of the scientific utility of the ISS, commented wryly, “astronauts can now do nothing in twice as much space.”

Meanwhile, as climate change proceeds apace, DSCOVR continues to explore the inside of its storage box in Maryland.

According to NASA brass, the decision to cancel DSCOVR last year was due to “competing priorities”. Lets do the math.

To put the cost of one of the those competing priorities in perspective, the ISS at $130 billion is roughly 1,300 times what it cost to build DSCOVR, and 13,000 times larger than what it would cost to launch and operate the now-completed DSCOVR themselves – something that Dr. Park has stated is “the most important thing we could be doing in space right now”

In actuality, the cost to NASA of launching DSCOVR now is approaching zero since it appears that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has found outside funding to take over the mission. Strangely, NASA as yet seems to feel that it is more cost effective not to hand DSCOVR over to another US government agency and instead keep it in storage at roughly $1 million per year.

Next posting: DSCOVR vs. putting a human on Mars.

This was published on Desmogblog.com on October 11, 2007.

2007-10-08

DSCOVR Debacle Part 4 - why won't NASA give it to NOAA?


Here is the latest bizarre twist in the saga of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). To recap, NASA was given over $100 million in taxpayers money to build a spacecraft that would look at the energy budget of our planet from a unique perspective. Even though it is fully completed over five years ago, it is still sitting in a box at the Goddard Space Centre.

According to leading scientists in a recent paper in the esteemed journal Science, this spacecraft would dispel much existing uncertainty about the pace of climate change. Specifically, after spending literally billions of dollars in low-Earth orbit studies, there is a still a glaring discrepancy in our understanding of the planet’s energy balance of 4-6 watts per square metre – that is roughly two to three times the effect of atmospheric C02.

DSCOVR would help resolve that problem because it would not be observing our planet from low Earth orbit.- its instruments would gaze back at Earth from 1.5 million kilomteres away at a gravitational parking spot between the Earth and Sun, far beyond the orbit of the Moon. The data provided by DSCOVR would compliment measurements from conventional climate satellites and give us a much clearer idea of our changing climate.

The reasons why NASA decided to quietly cancel the mission early last year remain a mystery. So are the reasons why NASA refuses to disclose any internal documents relating to this decision, even under the Freedom of Information Act.

What we do know is that another government agency is interested in securing DSCOVR for the better prediction of space weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) apparently wants DSCOVR at L1 so it can provide better information of solar flares that are approaching Earth.

Literally billions of dollars of satellite hardware are at risk from high-energy solar flares that can destroy sensitive orbiting instruments. Besides providing critical climate data, DSCOVR would replace aging sun monitoring spacecraft already at L1. This would provide engineers about an hour of advance warning of approaching solar storms so that expensive satellites can be shut down before nasty space weather hits.

Here’s the rub. Even though NOAA has apparently secured alternate funding to bankroll the launch and maintenance of DSCOVR, NASA so far has not yet provided the spacecraft.

One might understand why NASA would be reluctant to give American space hardware to the Ukrainians or the French, both of which offered to launch DSCOVR themselves. But another federal US agency?

To recap: NASA built it. Stored it. Cancelled it, Refused to allow offer countries to launch it. Refused to release any information on why it was cancelled, and now they won’t let another US government agency have it either.

The story gets stranger by the week. Next week: Following the money.

This was published on DeSmog Blog on Sept 28th, 2007

2007-10-02

DSCOVR Debacle Part 3

My entry into the DSCOVR mission intrigue happened last year when I pitched the idea to SEED magazine for a feature article on the project.

DSCOVR was quietly killed by NASA in January 2006 and it seemed awfully strange to me that a fully completed climate satellite costing $100 million would be mothballed after it had been built.

Stranger still was that virtually every scientist I interviewed as I researched this piece expressed something between guarded disappointment to full-blown outrage that what they considered crucial mission had been cancelled.

Project leader Dr. Francisco P. J. Valero, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, described the mission as “an urgent necessity”.

Dr. Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, was more blunt about the importance of DSCOVR’s data: “Not knowing may kill us.” He is on record as stating that sending DSCOVR to L1 is "the most important thing we could be doing in space right now."

Other scientists were so nervous about talking about the cancellation, the agreed to only speak off the record. One was even worried that the National Security Agency was recording our conversation.

That seemed a bit weird.

So in May 2006, after I had filed my piece with SEED, I sent in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to NASA for any documents “in the possession of NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Dr. Mary L. Cleave touching on or relating to the decision to cancel the mission.”

Good thing I didn’t hold my breath, I would have died of asphyxiation sometime last year. I twice narrowed the scope of the request for NASA’s benefit. I was somewhat encouraged to receive a letter of acknowledgement on May 18 telling me that my request was being processed.

Then nothing. By August I started bugging NASA by email to see what was happening. I left several voice mail messages and unanswered emails and finally got this email in late October stating:

“Dear Mr. Anderson, I want to apologize for the length of time that it has taken to respond to your request. I appreciate your modified request and your patience. I am working on your request and should have a package mailed out to you this week. I have reviewed the documents submitted to our office responsive to your request. At this time, I am asking for a quick review of the documents by our Office of the General Counsel.”

It’s important to note that federal agencies have a legal obligation to respond to FOIA requests within 20 working days. I was now up to 120 working days and getting pretty fed up, especially since the documents were apparently already collected and now held up by NASA lawyers. Then there is the small matter of the fate of the planet, but I digress…

The email assured me that the documents were going to be mailed “next week” and I was anxious to see what would be finally released. Little did I know that I facing another seven months of stonewalling.

In fact, NASA didn’t release any documents until April of 2007 – almost a year after filed my request. By then I was emailing them almost every day. And guess what? After keeping me waiting for over 250 days past their legal timeline, NASA withheld all internal documents relating to the decision to cancel DSCOVR.

What I got was 80 pages of mostly press clippings and letters from concerned scientists about the decision to cancel, all of which are available here.

After beating my head against a wall for almost a year, I still felt compelled to keep digging on this strange story. So I filed an appeal to NASA seeking release of the withheld documents. It wasn’t until July of this year that I got my answer. Again, goose eggs.

NASA’s legal department determined that among other things, it was necessary to withhold all internal documents relating to the decision to kill DSCOVR “to protect against public confusion that might result from disclosure of reasons and rationales that were not ultimately the grounds for the Agency’s actions.”

NASA also relied on a legal privilege to protect “open frank discussions on matters of policy between supervisors and superiors …”.

That seems a bit thin. The climate models the DSCOVR would help calibrate are now driving some of the most sweeping public policy decisions in the world.

After spending billions of dollars on low-Earth orbit observations, current climate models still have an energy imbalance of 4-6 watts per square meter, which is two to three times larger than the effect of atmospheric CO2. The unique data DSCOVR would beam back from 1.5 million kilometers away would help resolve those uncertainties and provide the world a much clearer view of how bad climate change really is.

Yet NASA is not only refusing to launch DSCOVR after taking over $100 million in taxpayers money for the project, they are also refusing to release any documents about the reasons for canceling the mission.

So what is NASA hiding? Are they simply embarrassed by this fiasco? Is there some incriminating email from the White House telling NASA to kill the project? What else is going on here? We are contemplating a legal challenge to pry open this cone of silence.

Next posting: The latest twist in this bizarre story.

2007-09-24

The DSCOVR Debacle (Part 2)

Back in 1998, before he wasn’t elected president, and long before he hit the Hollywood “A List” with An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore had an interesting idea.

It was a dream actually.

Gore woke one morning remembering how powerfully he was affected by the iconic “blue marble” photo taken on December 7, 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17 on their way to the moon.

In fact, we were all affected by it. Officially known as AS17-148-22727, the quintessential photo of the Earth became the most widely distributed image in human history. Far more than a pretty picture, this beautiful shot of our fragile planet became a catalyst for both the peace and environmental movements, and a testament to the political power of an iconic image.

The problem is that humans haven’t seen that view of our planet since before the age of disco. Apollo 17 was the last mission that went to the moon and in order to see the whole planet as they did, you have to go far beyond the Earth’s orbit.

Gore’s dream was to encourage NASA to put a permanent spacecraft far beyond the moon, continuously beaming back images of our planet to help foster environmental awareness and monitor our climate. He reasoned that such a spacecraft would provide a “clearer view of our own world” and be of “tremendous science value”.

After some consideration and peer review, the scientific community agreed —but for different reasons. Even in the 1990’s the scientific community was becoming increasingly alarmed about our changing climate due to burning fossil fuels. By putting a spacecraft equipped with a radiometer at the gravitational parking spot between the Earth and the Sun 1.5 million kilometers away, scientists would for the first time be able to constantly measure the energy budget of the entire planet.

NASA thought the mission might cost around $75 million — peanuts by space standards — and started working on it for launch around 2000. Gore wanted to call it “Triana”, after the navigator on Columbus’ boat who first saw the New World. It was later renamed DSCOVR to try and jettison some of the political baggage during the reign of the Republicans.

No such luck.

In the run-up to the 2000 election, the Republican-controlled congress had a field day, calling it “Goresat” and a “multi-million dollar screen saver”. House Majority Leader Dick Armey quipped, “This idea supposedly came from a dream. Well, I once dreamed I caught a 10-foot bass. But I didn’t call up the Fish and Wildlife service and ask them to spend $30 million to make sure it happened.”

Because Republicans controlled NASA’s budget, they could do a lot more than grandstand about the mission. In 1999, the congressional science committee sent a $41.2 billion NASA budget to congress specifically prohibiting that any of it be used for work on DSCOVR. This bill included an amendment from Republican Dave Weldon (Florida) shifting money away from DSCOVR to other projects – apparently in retaliation for job cuts at Kennedy Space Center in his congressional district.

Stopping just short of a book burning, the Republicans passed another bill later that year ordering NASA to suspend all development work on DSCOVR until the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the scientific merits of the mission, and forbidding it from being launched until after the 2000 presidential election.

In March 2000, the National Academy of Sciences proved the naysayers wrong, giving the mission a glowing review both for scientific merit and cost effectiveness. However, an entire year had been wasted responding to political theatre from Republican congressmen.

Yet fate and politics again conspired against DSCOVR. Al Gore did not become president in 2001. Dick Cheney was now arguably the most powerful man in the world. The Columbia Space Shuttle was tragically lost in 2003. DSCOVR was going to be stuck on Earth a while longer.

The indignities were not over yet. In 2006, the year that NASA quietly killed the mission altogether, the Republican-controlled congress raided NASA’s budget for $568.5 million in earmarks for 198 non-peer reviewed “congressional interest items” – otherwise known as pure political pork.

Considering that over 90% of the expenses have been incurred, and several governments have offered to launch DSCOVR themselves, what possible reason could NASA have for canceling the mission?

Back in 1998 when Al Gore had his dream, it was mainly climate scientists worried about global warming. Now it is widely recognized as a full-blown global emergency. Is NASA on crack, or is something else going on here?

Next Posting: the search for answers from NASA.