January 15, 2006
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Space Policy
University of Maryland's Bob Park, a generally reliable and always interesting commentator on science issues, falls well short of his usual standards in today's New York Times in an op-ed on the termination of the NASA Triana satellite. Park chooses to go after cheap political points rather than engage the real substance of policy issues involving the convoluted and controversial history of Triana.
Park bemoans the termination of Triana and asks ominously, "Why did NASA kill a climate change project?". He suggests a sinister conspiracy within the Bush Administration to "avoid the truth about global warming" and to transfer their "hated" of Al Gore onto the project he first proposed in 1998. Supposedly coming to Vice president Gore in dream, the original idea for Triana was based on putting a high definition TV camera far out in space where the satellite's 24-7-365 view of the Earth would inspire people to be better stewards of our planet. In 1998 the Clinton White House issued a press release on Triana, which described the proposal as follows:
"Vice President Gore proposed today that NASA scientists and engineers design, build and operate a satellite that will make available a live image of earth 24 hours a day on the Internet ... "This new satellite, called Triana, will allow people around the globe to gaze at our planet as it travels in its orbit around the sun for the first time in history," Vice President Gore said. "With the next millennium just around the corner, developing this High Definition TV quality image of the full disk of the continuously lit Earth and making it available 24 hours a day on the Internet will awaken a new generation to the environment and educate millions of children around the globe. This new space craft will be carried into low earth orbit where a small motor will place it in orbit 1 million miles from earth at the L1 point (short for the Lagrangian libration point), the point between the earth and sun where gravitational attractions are balanced. The satellite will carry a small telescope and camera to provide these new compelling images ... These images of the earth moved thousands of Americans and encouraged them to become active stakeholders in our planet's wellbeing, Vice President Gore said."
NASA, no fools when it comes to responding to influential policy makers, reacted quickly to the Vice President's proposal and set up a program. But positive feelings did not last long within NASA. In 1999, NASA's inspector general issued a report (here in PDF) that was extremely critical of Tirana's cost and mission, writing,
"In the context of NASA's constrained budget and the widespread availability of satellite pictures of the Earth, we are concerned about the cost and changing goals of the Triana mission. A relatively simple and inexpensive mission focused primarily (though not exclusively) on inspiration and education has evolved into a more complex mission focused primarily on science. The added scientific capabilities will increase the amount of data gathered by the mission, but they will also increase the mission's total cost. In addition, due to the mission's circumscribed peer review process,1 we are concerned that Triana's added science may not represent the best expenditure of NASA's limited science funding."
In 2000, the National Research Council issued a letter report on the scientific aspects of Triana, which gave a luke-warm endorsement of the mission, concluding:
"The task group found that the scientific goals and objectives of the Triana mission are consonant with published science strategies and priorities for collection of climate data sets and the need for development of new technologies. However, as an exploratory mission, Triana's focus is the development of new observing techniques, rather than a specific scientific investigation."
The NRC report was widely spun by advocates of Triana as an "endorsement" of the mission. This prompted Bob Harriss, formerly of NASA, and me to write a letter to Science in which we wrote:
"In the case of Triana, by focusing exclusively on "scientific merit," the NRC report neglected two important aspects of program evaluation: the cost-effectiveness and opportunity costs associated with the mission--which are particularly important given that no recently published NRC reports called for a mission such as Triana as part of the nation's remote sensing strategy. The opportunity costs of Triana go beyond those expressed in budgets to include research community time and focus, adherence to scientific goals, and ultimately scientific credibility. To provide two examples of questions that should have been addressed: Would national needs be better served if the resources devoted to Triana were instead focused on the widely supported goal of a synthetic aperture radar satellite mission? A series of successful Earth Science Enterprise satellite missions is providing a deluge of new data to the scientific community: Might national needs be better served by additional funds for analysis and applications of these data? But the NRC panel did not address such broader issues, stating that it "lacked the proper expertise, resources, and time to conduct a credible cost or cost-benefit analysis ... or an analysis of the mission goals and objectives within the context of a limited NASA budget or relative to other Earth Science Enterprise missions". It is exactly these issues that matter most in science and space policy decision-making. By focusing only on scientific merit, the NRC not only neglected the needs of decision-makers for a comprehensive perspective, but it provided an opportunity for the misuse of the report. Immediately after the NRC report was released, partisans were "spinning" it as an endorsement of the mission, misrepresenting the report's narrow focus on scientific merit under an assumption of successful implementation. Whether or not Triana makes sense as a component of the nation's remote sensing agenda would require consideration of the issues neglected by the NRC panel, including Triana's contributions to meeting its other rationales, such as education and space weather forecasting ... We have no reason to believe that Triana should not be a component of the nation's remote sensing infrastructure; however, the existing process has not shown why the mission should play such a role. The Triana experience provides a clear example of how the scientific community too often neglects asking and answering the difficult, but necessary, questions involved with effectively advising policy-makers on the nation's scientific priorities. Ultimately the soundness of the nation's scientific endeavors is at stake."
And this brings us back to Bob Park's New York Times op-ed today. Park continues the politicized legacy of Triana carrying the weight of political arguments of one sort or another, and while Park decries this, he perpetuates it by suggesting a sinister political motivation behind its termination. While perspectives on Triana are no doubt shaped by its unique origins, the reality is that has never occupied a high priority role in research priorities set forth by the climate science community, its costs ballooned and took resources from other earth and space science programs that had gone through community peer review (here in PDF, and it required a space shuttle flight of which there are exceedingly few left.
Park is going pretty far out on a limb when he suggests that Triana is a key resource in settling the climate change debate. It's not. To suggest otherwise is to either mischaracterize the current state of climate science, which has a robust consensus, or to mischaracterize the scientific value of Triana. There are lots of reasons to criticize the Bush Administration's approach to climate policy, but its support of research is not among them.
So, why did NASA kill Triana? Perhaps for some very legitimate reasons.
In his op-ed Bob Park choose scoring cheap political points rather than contributing to more effective science policy. He neglects important factors in favor of trying to place blame on the Bush White House for its alleged pursuit of a political vendetta and avoidance of scientific truth. In doing so, Park perpetuates the increasingly popular myth that science policy decision making is as simple as checking party identification. This is not just wrong, it threatens our ability to make effective science policy decisions.Posted on January 15, 2006 10:16 AM
Roger: Having read Bob Park's remarks on his blog and in the NY Times, I think that you and he are talking about different things, and that the policy and science issues are only in part what you are both talking about.
Parks' issue is that, in HIS judgement, an earth observing satellite in L-1 would be the most valuable new tool for satellite climate studies.
That can be argued but it is no slam dunk. the issues are different today than 6 years ago, the sesors that could be used are a huge amount better. We know a lot more about things that were then highest priority, perhaps to the point where getting something out to L-1 is the highest priority for new observations. That is the science side.
Given the warm mutual feelings between Bush administration and Gore (which may have sunk below absolute zero this afternoon), Trianna was never going to fly, but it was strong enough scientifically that it had not been killed off either.
NASA is caught in a huge cash squeeze. Not only are the space shuttle and space station costing more than their entire budget (given honest accounting), but there is a new exploration initiative which is the political expression of THIS administration's world view. Layer on top of this its attitude towards research which threatens to contradict any part of their economic and social vision and there is no question but that Earth science and Earth observing missions in NASA are being de-funded.
(How about a side bet that GISS goes to Columbia in the next budget?)
The highest agency Earth observing priority is the A Train. A huge amount of money has been invested in it, many scientists and engineers are working on it. In order to make it fly all the odds and ends are being triaged to collect funds.
I wrote a beautiful response last night but your automated troll nazi killed it, so you will have to do with second best. Sorry.
Posted by: Rabett at January 16, 2006 01:05 PM
I'm with Bob Park on this one. Given the history of Our Dear Leader and his theo-con puppetmasters from stem cells to the manned Mars Bitches! program, I wouldn't put anything past this bunch of troglodytes.
Posted by: An Enquiring Mind at January 17, 2006 08:55 AM
One should also balance Park's comments with his consistent loathing of anything having to do with human spaceflight. While he may not say this directly, he's no fan of any NASA or administration action (regardless of the administration) that diverts funds away from other programs that don't involve astronauts.
Posted by: David Bruggeman at January 21, 2006 08:34 AM