Noxious brew that delayed Nasa’s latest satellite
Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre is a large, leafy compound, dotted with giant hangars close to the Washington Beltway, somewhere between IKEA and the Disney Castle that is the capital’s Mormon Temple.
The compound is guarded as tightly as a military facility. This is where the Hubble telescope was put together. This is where its successor, the James Webb telescope – promising to give us an infra red glimpse into the origins of our universe – is being assembled. And this is where a satellite you have never heard of has embarked on an extraordinary journey.
Triana was conceived in 1998 by then vice-president Al Gore. Its purpose was to monitor climate change from a point half way between the earth and the sun while beaming back a constant feed of our planet’s images to be broadcast at universities and schools on another relatively new invention called the internet. Both climate change and the web were Al Gore’s pet projects.
The idea was to raise awareness for the earth’s apparently changing temperatures, the subject that would later be turned into the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth and win Al Gore the Nobel peace prize in 2007. The initial funding for the project was about $140m. Teams of scientists worked round the clock to develop and launch Triana.
And then something happened that Jay Herman, then lead scientist at the Goddard Space Centre, just hadn’t expected. George W Bush beat Al Gore in the race to the White House. Climate change became a dirty word and the congressional committee on science, which holds the purse strings for Nasa, decided to pull the plug on Triana.
As Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, the former Republican chairman of the committee, told me: “Al Gore’s satellite was a boondoggle… a very expensive screen saver.” Sensenbrenner still doesn’t believe in the science of climate change. He also didn’t like Al Gore’s grand standing on the issue.
In fact, much of the discussion about climate change has been poisoned by the divided politics of America’s culture wars. As a prominent Republican once told me: “Al Gore and Hollywood are trying to tell us how to run our lives and drive our cars.”
Arguably, those who believe in the urgency of climate change have also never done a very good job at convincing the sceptics. Climate change has become like gay marriage. You are either for it or against it. Triana might have solved some of the controversy by providing much needed data.
But its birth defect was its controversial godfather, and Triana ended up languishing for over a decade in a corner of the giant storage fridge at Goddard. Since so much money had been spent on it, no-one had the heart to turn it into scrap metal.
Instead Nasa waited to give Triana a make-over: a new name, DSCOVR – Deep Space Climate Observatory – and a new emphasis. The satellite would be modified to look at space weather, the sun’s flares and storms that on occasion play havoc with our electricity grids and GPS systems.
The convenience of space weather is that it is utterly unpolitical. Warning us about it can save billions of dollars and no-one needs to change their driving habits or limit the amount of air conditioning they use.
Nasa has pumped another $100m into the satellite, and it now has a tentative launch date in 2014. DISCOVR will be sent to a place called the LeGrange point, gravitationally half-way between the sun and earth, where it will keep one eye on the sun and the other on the earth’s changing climate.
It’s a clever ploy. It is thus still partially true to its original mission while using newer and better technology. But as we discovered at Nasa, climate change has become a toxic term, and drawing too much attention to it can kill a project on Capitol Hill, where the Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives. Talking about climate change and the satellite’s vexing journey through the political undergrowth is like walking on egg shells.
So, fingers crossed, DSCOVR will fly in 2014, more than a decade after it should have been launched, a decade in which it could have provided crucial scientific information in one of the most important issues of our day. In Washington DC science and politics are a noxious brew. That too is an inconvenient truth.
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