Studying Earth A Big Part Of NASA Langley’s Next 100 Years

2017-07-13T14:19:29+00:00 July 13, 2017|
(Click to enlarge) A true-color NASA satellite mosaic of Earth. (Credit: NASA)

(Click to enlarge) A true-color NASA satellite mosaic of Earth. (Credit: NASA)

NASA is best known for its space work, its missions to the moon and Mars — but NASA Langley’s focus during the last 40 years has largely been on studying the planet we live on. On Thursday, the second day of NASA Langley Research Center’s Centennial Symposium to mark its founding in 1917, scientists laid out reasons why that work is critical enough to continue.

(Daily Press/ Tamara Dietrich) — “It has an immediate impact, because we’re studying our home,” David Young, head of Langley’s Science Directorate, said during a panel discussion. “We’re studying a place that we live in, and the questions we’re answering directly result in improvements to our economy, to our society. We have better forecasts for severe weather, we have better agricultural forecasts, better disaster response. And all that is an inherent benefit to all of us when we study the Earth.”

The arguments presented by Young and other scientists have particular resonance in light of President Donald Trump’s proposed spending bill for fiscal year 2018, which would cut funding for NASA’s earth science work by nearly $167 million and cancel several Earth-observing missions. The House budget would increase NASA’s overall science budget but doesn’t specify how much would go to earth science research.

Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division at NASA headquarters, said about 10 percent of NASA’s overall budget is devoted to Earth observations, and for a reason.

“We live on an incredibly complex planet,” Freilich said. “And there are processes in the ocean and in the atmosphere and on the land, and exchanges between all of them. And thermal dynamics and chemical things and biological things and physical things. … Our goal is to understand this complex planet as an integrated system.”

The most effective way to study a complex Earth is from space, and NASA now has about 18 orbiting satellites in its fleet, plus three instruments aboard the International Space Station, all collecting vast amounts of data. About 19 more are in development — and already budgeted — to launch over the next several years.

“This is really where the rubber hits the road,” Freilich said. “This is how we can justify to people on the Hill, to our various stakeholders and, frankly, ourselves why we are doing what we’re doing. It’s not just to understand, but we can turn our understanding into benefit.”

A better understanding of the planet’s oceans — or “inner space” — for instance, gave the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet an outsize strategic advantage over the former Soviet Union’s, said panelist and retired Rear Adm. Jonathan White.

“Oceanography won the Cold War,” White said, quoting the late Adm. James Watkins. White credited the ocean science gathered by NASA’s space-based instruments.

White is president of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a group of more than 90 institutions, including the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, involved in ocean science and technology.

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