Eighty-five years ago Albert Einstein addressed the students and faculty of the California Institute of Technology: “Concern for man himself and his fate must always be the chief interest of all technical endeavors … in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind,” he told the audience. “Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”
While Einstein certainly was thinking about the involvement of science with weapons of war, he was also making a broader point about the scientific and technical enterprise that arguably applies to today’s space program. We must never forget our responsibility be involved in endeavors that benefit humanity, whether they be exploratory in nature or those that provide tangible knowledge to help people. NASA’s aeronautics and Earth observations activities certainly fall in the latter category.
On the week we celebrate Earth Day, it is worth noting the fascinating and unexpected examples which demonstrate how everyone benefits from space observations of the only planet known to harbor life.
Given the immediacy of events in Ecuador and Japan, we should appreciate the role of NASA Earth-watching satellites such as Terra and Aqua in providing disaster responders with comprehensive, real-time data about ground surface deformation and hazards caused by earthquakes. NASA also uses its satellite and airborne assets to measure tiny changes in lands along fault systems that could lead in the future to accurate earthquake prediction.
We know that satellite observations help save lives and billions of dollars in property by allowing forecasters to warn affected populations sooner about severe storms. But it is useful to be reminded how vulnerable we would be without these assets. Following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in 2012, European weather forecasters ran a test model of Sandy’s path, but eliminated the data provided by polar orbiting satellites built by NASA and operated by NOAA, just to see what the data would show. They were shocked to find that the storm’s left turn into the most populated areas of America’s eastern seaboard — predicated accurately in the five-day forecast issued by the National Weather Service — was completely absent without the polar satellite data. It was not only the weather satellites that provided the needed information, but other data sources, like sea surface temperatures measured by NASA Earth observation instruments like Modis aboard the Aqua satellite, that enhanced the lifesaving accuracy of the Sandy path prediction.
Currently, California is experiencing its fifth year of dangerous drought conditions. NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission is providing surprising insights into water loss in the Golden State. Through its ability to spot hidden features like the gravitational impact of deep underground water reserves, GRACE has enabled scientists for the first time to accurately estimate the state’s water deficit and calculate how much change in water use, rationing and snowfall must occur to rescue the state from its drought. Space assets have also allowed NOAA to identify the shifting patterns of warm and cold sea water associated with El Niño and La Niña events which greatly impact California’s rainfall and western hemisphere weather patterns.
The 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano disrupted transatlantic civil air traffic for days. With the help of the Ozone Mapping and Profiling Suite that lies on the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, launched in 2011, we can now track dust and sulfur dioxide from volcanic eruptions allowing flight controllers to determine optimal flight routes around the hazard.
The World Food Program uses a sophisticated Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) for monitoring at-risk regions of the world. FEWS analysis relies on satellite observation to gauge rainfall, vegetation indices and water measurements to warn localities of impending famine conditions. FEWS has helped predict a number of recent famines, enabling a better response before the crisis peaked.
These and other examples of the value of Earth observations from space-based assets for saving lives, improving our economy, and helping assure our nation’s security, while also giving us a revolutionary insight into the science of how our planet works, are contained in AIA’s new white paper, “Knowing Our Home: Understanding Earth from Space” (download it at bit.ly/aiawhitepaper).
Some may wonder why I have yet to mention how important Earth observations from space are for monitoring and understanding climate change. This is for the simple purpose of reminding those people who question NASA’s involvement in climate-related observation capabilities that the space agency’s Earth science enterprise is about much more than climate. Importantly, AIA and our member companies urge Congress to support more robust budgets in order to enable NASA to pursue its exploration and science missions, aeronautics and to continue its modest funding support for groundbreaking Earth science research and observational capabilities whose rewards far exceed their costs.
David F. Melcher, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former Exelis CEO, is the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association.