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?


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.