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.

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