How Politics Conspired to Kill DSCOVR

Thu, 2007-09-06 09:17Mitchell Anderson
Mitchell Anderson's picture

How Politics Conspired to Kill DSCOVR

This is the second in DeSmogBlog's investigative series called “Operation Uncover DSCOVR.

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.

Check out part one in our series for more.

We have a lot of FOIA requests to do and a lot more research. If you would like to help out our investigative team please send a donation to DeSmogBlog for Operation Uncover DSCOVR.

If you have any information that you think might be helpful, please send a message to desmogblog[at]gmail.com and we can arrange for you to send it anonymously if required. 

Previous Comments

This is fascinating stuff. It also points out that Gore has good instincts. He may not have invented the internet, but he knew a good thing when he saw it, and this looks like another example of foresight. Elsewhere on this site (“Award-winner Gore set to pitch global-warming message in British Columbia’s capital”), posters wonder about the intensity of Gore-bashing. This article has jiggled an idea as to why denialists get so apoplectic about Gore. I think they all realize on a visceral level (whether they will admit it to themselves or not) that the man is RIGHT.

To them I would say, just because it’s Gore’s idea doesn’t mean its a BAD idea.

It’s a shame how petty the politics can get in Washington. 

Government Accountability Project (GAP)
Free Speech for Climate Scientists - Free Conference Call and Q&A

Wednesday, September 12th, 6:00 - 7:00 PM.

Featuring Rick Piltz, Director of Climate Science Watch and federal climate science whistleblower,
& Tarek Maasarani, GAP staff Attorney and co-author of Atmosphere of Pressure and Redacting the Science of Climate Change.

To register for this call, email Richard Kim-Solloway at richards@whistleblower.org
To listen to our previous calls, visit http://www.whistleblower.org/template/page.cfm?page_id=188

Background: As the second category 5 hurricane in as many weeks devastates Central America – the first time two such severe storms have made landfall in one season since 1886 – attention has sharply returned to questions over the imminent threat posed by climate change.

But while scientific opinion has reached a strong consensus on the seriousness of the changes and the role of human emissions in causing them, scientists working for Agencies like NASA have reported having their views suppressed and altered by appointees with no scientific training and a brief to promote the policies of the Bush Administration.

In 2005, GAP helped Rick Piltz – then a senior staffer in the U.S Climate Change Science Program - blow the whistle on the White House’s improper editing and censorship of scientific reports on global warming intended for the public and Congress.

GAP helped Rick release two major reports to The New York Times that documented the actual hand-editing by Chief of Staff Philip Cooney – a lawyer and former climate team leader with the American Petroleum Institute – thereby launching a media frenzy that resulted in the resignation of the “former” lobbyist, who left to work for ExxonMobil.

With Piltz’ leadership GAP has launched Climate Science Watch, a GAP program that reaches out to scientists, helps them fight off censorship, and brings to light the continued politicization of environmental science. He is also featured in the award-winning documentary, Everything’s Cool.

GAP also represented Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s top climate scientists, who blew the whistle on NASA’s attempts to silence him. Hansen’s disclosures led GAP Staff Attorney, Tarek Massarani, to conduct a year-long investigation that found objectionable and possibly illegal restrictions on the communication of scientific information to the media.

His findings, summarized in Redacting the Science of Climate Change, included examples of the delaying, monitoring, screening, and denying of interviews, as well as the delay, denial, and inappropriate editing of press releases.

GAP also released a joint Atmosphere of Pressure report with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) that combined GAP’s investigative reporting and legal analysis with the results of a UCS survey of federal climate scientists. The reports received broad national attention and have already been presented in testimony at two congressional oversight hearings.

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