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.

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