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.


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:

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


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.


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


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.