One year ago, the National Academy of Sciences released a report urging NASA to rebuild its aging network of environmental spacecraft by funding 15 Earth-observing satellite missions between 2010 and 2020. Since its release, the decadal survey has galvanized many across the Earth science community. Peter Hildebrand, the new deputy director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate, talks about the survey’s impact on the Earth science community.
What impact has the first-ever decadal survey on Earth science had on the science community?
The decadal survey is a landmark event. In the past, the Earth sciences have not gotten together to outline their priorities and now we’ve done that. This report maps the types of missions we fly and the measurements we need to understand the dramatic changes we’re seeing in the climate. It provides a roadmap for a sequence of missions that extend from where we are now to where we’ll be in the next decade in our attempt to understand and respond to the impacts of climate change. These missions also will improve weather forecasting and help us to assess the global water cycle and the health of the biosphere and to predict biospheric changes. These are important issues. The decadal survey team did an excellent job of selecting, prioritizing, and setting a timeline for these missions. We now need to move forward with the first wave of recommended missions. Of course, that leaves the NASA hierarchy and Congress in the position of figuring out how to fund these missions, but they need to do this.
What trends do you foresee that could affect the funding?
Well, obviously the cost of doing all these things is going to be something that will be an issue. But on the other hand, the EOS satellites were billion-dollar missions; they were big, they were complicated, and they have been extremely successful. Just look at what we’ve learned about weather, climate, the biosphere, and more. There’s no reason why NASA should shy away from this list of missions. They are important and we, NASA, have proven that we can do them with spectacular results. Because of what we’ve done before, we now have a greater understanding of how the Earth works. At the same time, we must be diligent about developing innovative ways to cut mission costs and introduce greater efficiencies.
How has the decadal survey affected Goddard’s priorities?
The decadal survey has affected Goddard’s priorities, and the priorities of other NASA Centers as well, by providing this clear roadmap. In my view, the top Earth science priorities after GPM (Global Precipitation Measurement) and LDCM (Landsat Data Continuity Mission) are ICESat-II (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite) and SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive). For SMAP, we’re partnering with JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) by building the radiometer and providing data analysis and science. I hope we start those missions this spring. Earth science really needs them. They are the best missions to start with because they are mature and ready to go. Also high on the list is DESDynI (Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice). Farther down the road is ACE (Aerosol-Cloud-Ecosystems) and GRACE II (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment). We’ll have major roles on those missions, too. The power of the decadal survey is that it was carefully thought out and represents a consensus as to priorities. We just need the green light to get going.
With the decadal survey in mind, are there any specific areas where you want to partner with others to develop new missions or technologies?
It’s inevitable that a large number of these missions will have partnerships. Some are natural for Goddard and others are natural for other Centers to lead. SMAP and DESDynI are obvious examples. SMAP has a mature team, with the JPL providing mission leadership and Goddard providing the radiometer, to say nothing of the excellent community involvement. As for DESDynI, JPL has been working on an InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar) concept for years. So they’ll definitely want to be doing that. Goddard also will be an important player, supporting the biospheric aspects of the mission. As these and other missions move along, various groups will naturally form, and I expect that Goddard will have strong participation in many of these missions.
What can Goddard do to win these missions?
One thing that Goddard has already done is to improve the management of our Internal Research and Development (IRAD) funds. We’ve improved the focus on the decadal survey missions and other mission opportunities, and we’ve focused on cutting-edge new instrumentation concepts. We’ve improved the quality of management’s role in the evaluation process, which has led to a noticeable change in the quality of the projects and the alignment of those projects with the big goals. As we look down the list of decadal survey missions, it’s important for Goddard to keep taking a long-term view of what we should do and to think more strategically about what we partner and what we compete. I also wish we had a larger pool of IRAD money; it would be well spent.
What specific technologies do you think we need to work on?
There is a whole spectrum of technologies that Goddard has pioneered — technologies that we need to keep working on. These include passive and active microwave, lidar, and altimetry. We need measurements in the multispectral — visible through thermal — and more. The need for these technologies has only intensified. The demand now is for improved, higher-resolution, higher-accuracy measurements. Let me name a few specifics. We have a strong history with radars, particularly with ground-based and airborne weather radars, and we’re particularly strong in the science application. Our engineering capabilities are growing and getting stronger, as are our lidar activities, but we could improve through more cohesive, better-coordinated projects. Doppler lidar technologies are important areas for improvement; improved chemical constituent measurements might be helpful. Laser altimetry is being applied to ice topography changes and to measuring biospheric and ecosystem changes. Combining laser and multispectral measurements is another promising area for understanding the biosphere.
What can we do to stimulate more interaction between the sciences to create significant leaps in science or technology?
I would like to see the Goddard seminar series expanded. I’d like to see more management-level presentations and more publicity about these events. Our current seminar series are great, but a lot more is going on and we have a lot of the experts right here. This would be helpful in learning more about what the other parties do. Building the new sciences building should help, too, because it will eliminate many of the existing geographical barriers. Perhaps we also should have some prizes for scientists who have the courage to leap into new areas of investigation.
Goddard technologists win new work, secure follow-on funding to mature new technologies, formulate concepts, and validate new instrument concepts in flight demonstrations — successes that benefit Goddard and the scientific community as a whole.