Earth Day and the March for Science will be held on April 22, 2017 — a day to reflect on the work of scientists and engineers to better understand our Earth as a life-giving system. Those from California’s Central Coast played a significant role in what we’ve come to know about our planet.
When NASA was established, its mission statement stated its primary objective was “the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” This led hundreds of men and women working in California’s Central Coast to design, build, and test Earth-sensing, satellite-borne instrumentation between 1972 and the early 2000s. The first was the Multispectral Scanning System that launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the Landsat satellite in 1972. This instrument orbited around the poles mapping the Earth from 438 miles high, which allowed full coverage as the Earth rotated below. Over the next 20 years, several Thematic Mapper instruments were built for Landsat satellites. In fact, for the past 45 years, there have been continuous Landsat operations. The latest and newest is the Landsat 8 satellite.
The Earth-observing instruments were designed, built, and tested for NASA by employees of Santa Barbara Research Center. SBRC was a national asset with a long Santa Barbara–Goleta history dating back to 1952. Since 1972, the Central Coast team has produced many additional Earth-sensing instruments, including MODIS, SeaWiFS, and VIIRS. Designed to last five years, many have been in operation for 20 years or more.
As knowledge of Earth’s environmental systems expanded, so did NASA’s Mission Statement. In 2002, the following was added: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers … as only NASA can.”
Steadily, scientists from around the world absorbed the data gathered by these sensing instruments, revealing humanity’s impact on Earth. Dr. James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies took NASA’s mission statement seriously and gave frequent talks throughout the U.S. warning of the threat of climate change. Under heavy pressure from energy lobbyists fearing financial losses, the George W. Bush administration, in 2004, triggered a critical change to NASA’s mission statement. No longer was there mention of the Earth. Instead, the mission statement stated: “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”
Further erosion of NASA’s half-century contribution to our understanding our Earth’s life-giving system is underway. The Trump proposed federal budget seeks to eliminate funding for three critical climate change detection instruments. One monitors carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as it varies with time and location and flies aboard the International Space Station (OCO-3). Another monitors the health of our oceans and skies by sensing plankton, aerosols, clouds, and the ocean ecosystem (PACE). The third, called CLARREO, is designed to produce highly accurate climate records to test climate projections in order to improve models and enable sound policy decisions.
The Santa Ynez Valley Community Action Alliance commends the Central Coast employees of Santa Barbara Research Center for their dedication and persistence developing key Mission to Planet Earth satellite instruments that have made every single day “Earth Day” for nearly 50 years. The Action Alliance Climate Change/Environmental Action working group honors the NASA Mission Statement “To understand and protect our home planet … ” by working to promote the inclusion of OCO-3, PACE, and CLARREO instruments in the NASA budget. For more information about Santa Ynez’s Action Alliance, please visit our website syvcommunityactionalliance.org.
Allen DeForrest spent his engineering career working on aerospace instrumentation to better understand our planet and beyond. He lives with his family, including two grandchildren, in Santa Ynez, where he currently makes bear-resistant food canisters for backpackers.