Make yourself comfortable before asking scientists at NASA about the mission they work on. That is, unless they’re working on the Deep Space Climate Observatory, called DSCOVR, a satellite scheduled for launch early next year. A curious modesty surrounds any discussion about the mission; NASA’s press office dodges inquiries by passing them on to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which formally controls DSCOVR, even though the cargo-van-size spacecraft sits inside NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where dozens of NASA engineers are testing and tweaking its instruments in advance of its big day. When NASA finally allowed me to meet with a deputy project manager, he claimed to know nothing about the science those instruments will study. He’s just an operations guy.
NOAA, for its part, says the climate observatory is nothing special. It’s just the cheapest way it found to replace a satellite known as ACE, the Advanced Composition Explorer, which has been studying weather on the sun since 1997. “DSCOVR is not meant to provide the next generation of technology,” says Mary Kicza, who retired in July as NOAA’s assistant administrator for satellite and information services at the agency’s Silver Spring, Maryland headquarters, a few miles from Goddard. “It was the lowest-cost, lowest-risk option for meeting our requirements.”
That’s a harsh description for a spacecraft that was dreamt up 16 years ago as a way to strengthen the bonds between our planet and the people who live on it. It’s not exactly an accurate description either: DSCOVR is designed to make contributions to the sum of human knowledge. They’re just not contributions that federal administrators, who depend on both sides of the aisle in Congress for their funding, are keen to talk about. Like tight-lipped aristocrats in a Victorian drama, NASA and NOAA are doing their best to avoid association with characters that polite society may deem indecorous, or at least to keep the gossip around town to a minimum.
For DSCOVR is none other than the reincarnation of the lost satellite program Triana, better known as Goresat. It was born one night in February 1998, when then vice president Al Gore bolted out of bed with a vision of providing “a clearer view of our world,” as he would describe it a few weeks later when he announced the idea during a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He challenged NASA to send a satellite to the L1 Lagrange Point, a spot one million miles from Earth in the direction of the sun, where the two bodies’ gravitational pulls are in equilibrium. Once there, Triana would create a digital age version of Apollo 17’s iconic “blue marble” photograph by beaming back a continuous real-time view of Earth’s sunlit side. This sight would, Gore hoped, heighten consciousness of the planet’s environmental fragility, and encourage contemplation of how global warming could gravely affect it. For the mission’s name, Gore chose to pay homage to Rodrigo de Triana, the sailor who first spotted North America from one of Columbus’ ships.
As NASA’s chief Earth scientist, Ghassem Asrar was there for Triana’s beginnings; he now heads the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland. Gore summoned Asrar and a few NASA colleagues for a brainstorming session shortly after his epiphany. “The vice president asked a number of exciting and probing questions,” Asrar recalls. “He came across as very well informed and very well studied about this [L1] point in space.” They decided he should go public with the idea.
Gore’s live stream of Earth rubbed some people—namely, the Republican opposition—the wrong way. The New York Times reported that when it came time to add Triana funding to NASA’s budget, Gore’s vision faced Congressional dissent: The satellite was a “multi-million-dollar screen saver” that would take money from real research, said Representative Dave Weldon, a ranking member of the House Science Committee; House majority leader Dick Armey called it a “far-out boondoggle.”
But the administration didn’t need Congress’ approval to start work on the satellite; it shifted money allocated to other Earth and space science missions. With the vice president’s name attached to it, the Triana concept moved through NASA at the bureaucratic equivalent of warp speed. By July, NASA was soliciting proposals to design instruments for the satellite, which, due to its proximity to the sun, would already be equipped with a suite of instruments called Plasma-Mag to measure solar wind and magnetic output. The winning pitch came from a team led by Francisco Valero, a physicist then at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego, and it took Triana to the next level. “Our idea was to add a climate science aspect to the inspirational aspect that Vice President Gore had outlined,” says Valero. His team planned to include two advanced instruments; the first was EPIC, for Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera. “EPIC is really a telescope, or a giant telephoto lens with 10 different filters,” says Adam Szabo, NASA’s current project scientist for DSCOVR. The filters record light at wavelengths associated with phenomena that most interest climate scientists, such as ozone, aerosols, cloud cover, leafy vegetation, and others.
But for Earth scientists, the centerpiece of the satellite was the National Institute of Standards Advanced Radiometer, or NISTAR, named for the Maryland-based government laboratory that designed it. The apparatus was built to shed light on Earth’s “radiation balance”—the radiation we receive from our sun minus the radiation we reflect back into space. The difference is retained by our planet as heat, and is calculated by measuring Earth’s reflectivity, called the albedo. Data showing whether Earth’s albedo is decreasing, meaning the atmosphere is retaining more heat because of greenhouse gases or other reasons, could be a significant piece of the climate puzzle.
What was revolutionary wasn’t the basic technology for tracking albedo—it was measuring it from the million-mile perspective out at L1. Most satellites circle the planet at about one-thousandth of that distance, so their readings encompass only a small slice of land, a view that shifts rapidly as they circle the planet every two hours or so. Different climate zones—ice caps, deserts, tropical forests—have different reflectivities, independent of the atmosphere, which needs to be factored in to the overall measurement; it’s virtually impossible to create a whole-Earth portrait from a deck of low-orbit snapshots. “By the time you stitch together all the separate bits of data, the margin of error is too large to be useful,” Asrar says. “DSCOVR, on the other hand, would be like having a thermometer for the whole planet.” It’s not a perfect gauge, NASA’s Szabo cautions. “Earth is…a sphere that reflects light in all directions. So a measurement from any one point will not be the final word. But it will still be very important for the conversation about climate change.”
But at the time, not everyone was interested in a conversation about climate change. “The way the program was rolled out and its personal connection with Gore created this huge political backlash,” says Asrar. “Whatever discussions we had with Hill staffers or anyone else, we could never shake that image.” In May 1999, House Republicans added an amendment that stripped Triana from NASA’s budget request bill; according to the CQ Almanac, Democrats hollered that the move was calculated to hurt Gore during his run for the presidency. NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin fired back at the amendment; in a letter to Congress, he said the mission was too important to scrap, and that if the bill passed without funding for the spacecraft, he would ask President Clinton to veto it. Then NASA’s inspector general stepped in.
A few months later, the inspector general came back with a stinging evaluation of Triana, painting it as a fiscally out-of-control rush job of dubious scientific merit. The decision to include Scripps’ climate instrument suite increased the mission budget from $50 million to $77 million. While those science instrument proposals were sufficiently peer-reviewed, the overarching Triana concept—largely inspirational—never was, the auditor complained. And even though the Scripps Institution’s contribution was deemed scientifically worthy, the request for proposals was open a mere 45 days, the minimum allowed by NASA. The report noted that Triana received nine proposals, only three of which met the qualifications to be reviewed. The same year, a similar-sized Earth science mission had an open period of 70 days, and received 22 proposals. “The increased costs of turning Triana into a science mission might be justified if the science on the mission were the best science that could be funded for the money being spent,” the report concluded, but the conditions of the proposal request period did not allow for the best science.
Among the inspector general’s recommendations: dumping the satellite entirely and simply producing a “virtual Triana” that would “use data from the numerous spacecraft already transmitting pictures of the Earth”—essentially, the inadequate, piecemeal approach that going to L1 would avoid. Asrar, who wrote the response to the auditor defending the program and declining the suggestions, believes the watchdog rushed to judgment. “Part of it was politics,” he says. “Part of it was that they didn’t really want to take the time to fully understand the science experiments that were added.”
NASA continued to reroute funding from within the agency and requested a follow up study from the National Research Council, a branch of the apolitical National Academies that advises the government on scientific questions. The council’s report, released in March 2000, was much more sympathetic to Gore’s cause. It found that “the Triana mission will complement and enhance data from other missions because of the unique character of the measurements obtainable at the L1 point in space,” and “the cost of Triana is not out of line for a relatively small mission that explores a new Earth observing perspective and provides unique data.”