Earth System Science at
20 Oral History
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Washington, DC – 22 June 2009
Today is June 22, 2009. This oral history is being conducted at NASA
Headquarters in Washington D.C. with Michael Luther, who is currently
the Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs in the NASA Science
Mission Directorate. This interview is part of the Earth System Science
at 20 Oral History Project to gather experience from those who significantly
have been involved in various efforts in the launch and evolution
of Earth System Science. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright. Thank you
so much for finding time in your busy schedule this afternoon to talk
with me. I’d like to get started with you sharing some of your
background. How did you first get involved in your field of expertise?
It’s probably worth saying that basically how I got involved
was being a child of the1960s, as I like to say. I went to undergraduate
school in the early 60s and mid-60s, and graduated from graduate school
in ’69, just as we were going to the Moon. With a person with
a mathematics and physics degree, what is one expected to do except
to go work in the space program?
I had friends who had started working in Huntsville, Alabama at [NASA]
Marshall Space Flight Center. Through them, I found a job—at
the time, not working as a civil servant, but as a contractor. In
the first few years, the big issue at that time was, in fact, Space
Shuttle. Even though we hadn’t quite landed on the Moon—we
did so that summer after I started work—the agency was now turning
more towards looking at the downturn in the Moon activity and going
towards the next generation of launch vehicles, which was the Space
I spent the first couple of years learning the basic rudiments of
being a contractor, of what NASA does, and doing a lot of actual return
trajectory design for the Shuttle in those early days, which actually
was quite fascinating work, even though I didn’t pursue it in
the longer run. After a couple of years in Huntsville, due to contract
changes and so on, I was looking for another job, and landed a job
at [NASA] Langley Research Center [Hampton, Virginia], which is located
on Langley Air Field. Although NASA is known mostly for aircraft work
there, they did have a vibrant, growing Earth Remote Sensing Program,
which I was lucky enough to become a part of. I look back in time
now and realize just how lucky I was to have been there at that place
and time, because it was really one of the important infancies of
Earth Remote Sensing. That was in ’72. It was the beginning
I worked in support of a small group of people at Langley, designing
Earth Remote Sensing capabilities, testing them—mostly in the
computer, as it were, through modeling. We would characterize a sensor
of a certain type and then build a model of the sensor and build a
model of the Earth in the computer and play them off against each
That’s how I began to gain a great appreciation for that work,
in the sense of remotely measuring the Earth’s environment and
so on. The activity itself was referred to as the Earth Radiation
Budget Experiment. That was the name that was given to the proposed
“new start.” At that time we called them New Starts in
the agency. A New Start was when a program got a major funding effort
from Congress to actually go build a satellite, make a set of measurements,
and reduce to data.
I worked for several years, as these new starts aren’t gained
overnight. They have to be worked on for some period of time. You
have to demonstrate that you know your business, and know what you
are doing, and you have got the scientific and engineering background,
so I worked on that for quite a few years.
Just as that project got funded from Congress, right about the time
it really kicked off and got going, one of the civil servant employees
decided to retire. I had been working closely with him, so the project
manager came to me and said, “Would you like to come over to
the government side from being a contractor and be closer to what
we are doing here and be responsible for one of the instruments effectively?”
I didn’t have to think about it too long to know that that’s
what I wanted to do.
So I did, and I was Lead Engineer for the Earth Radiation Budget Experiment
instrument that we actually built three copies of. I was lucky enough
to see it through development, calibration, delivery to the spacecraft,
launch. We launched one of them on the Shuttle in 1984. We launched
the other two on some NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]
operational satellites in I believe it was ’85 and ’86,
[on] two separate launches.
That was a very rewarding experience and my first opportunity to actually
build hardware. To that point, I had done all computer modeling, analysis,
and so on. So I actually got to be associated closely with the actual
flight hardware build. In fact, if you saw today’s symposium
[NASA Earth System Science at 20 Symposium, National Academy of Sciences,
Washington, DC], the ERBS [Earth Radiation Budget Satellite] was one
of the markers on Chris [Christopher] Scolese’s timeline of
Earth Science events up there. I’m very proud to have cut my
teeth or grown up on ERBS.
About the time ERBS was ramping down, I came here to [NASA] Headquarters
[Washington D. C.], originally on sort of an exchange learning program.
I came as a deputy program manager for something called Upper Atmosphere
Research Satellite [UARS], which was in fact at the time the biggest
research satellite that Earth Science had ever built. A large observatory,
10 instruments, to be launched on the Shuttle and all of that. Again,
being in the right place, or at the wrong place at the time, I guess,
depending on your point of view.
I was only here for a matter of months, and the program manager got
a promotion to be a branch head in another part of NASA in Space Science,
but in astrophysics. So Earth Science had this opening for program
manager for Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite. I look back on that
and chuckle, because here I was still wet behind the ears, and I went
to my boss, Shelby [G.] Tilford, who was on the panel today, and,
as I like to say, I had the audacity to ask him to let me be the program
manager. He had the audacity to say yes. Although, he had to think
about it a little bit. I suspected he had to actually convince some
people besides himself about it, too.
From about ’86 until it launched in ’91, I was the program
manager for UARS. Very successful, very interesting, and I’m
proud to have been associated with getting through a major program
like that at that level—the full observatory and integrating
with the Shuttle and a big international program, had a lot of international
activities associated with it.
It was during that time period that the concept of Earth System Science
was starting to take hold?
Yes, exactly right. Exactly. When I came up, in fact, right at the
time in ’85, I guess right after we launched ERBS, I was coming
into Headquarters and got the assignment of UARS. It was right in
that timeframe that I remember very distinctly that while I was an
engineer by training, obviously, that we were a smaller science group
in those days by relative standards. I remember Francis Bretherton
coming quite often, meeting with Shelby. The chart; the famous Earth
System Science chart [Bretherton Diagram, 1985]. It went through a
number of iterations, as you can imagine, as they kept refining it
and trying to get it just exactly right.
Of course, it was in that timeframe that I got to know Dixon [M.]
Butler and Stan Wilson and Bill [William] Townsend, as we all worked
together in various jobs in the Earth Science area. But, you’re
right, that’s where we were refining the Earth System Science
concept. At the same time, selling, if you will, for the next New
Start, which was EOS, Earth Observing System. There were, in those
days, as we marched along, again spread over several years, lots of
workshops and study science teams that delivered reports on instrumentation,
and we did announcements of opportunity for instruments and began
to build momentum, as we like to say.
So that was going on. By the time, in fact, we got to launching UARS—I
remember this very vividly—the concept of Mission to Planet
Earth had become a terminology that was beginning to be used. The
two missions that we had that were following ERBS, the big missions,
were UARS and TOPEX/Poseidon [Ocean Topography Experiment]. TOPEX/
Poseidon was about a year behind UARS. We began to refer to those
as EOS precursors and missions. That’s the way we spoke about
them, as sort of the lead-in to the Earth Observing System.
In fact, by the time that we launched, I remember doing a press conference
the night we launched, we released the UARS, and it was healthy and
working. My introduction was something along the lines of, “Welcome
to the beginnings of Mission to Planet Earth.” That was truly
the first big observatory that we put out there soon to be followed
by these other observatories.
What were your expectations at that time as these ideas were being
gathered and developed into a strategy to have an Earth System Science
Well, it was an expectation that eventually we actually did fulfill
and deliver. But, it was, in fact, an expectation that primarily,
first and foremost, that we would have a fleet of spacecraft that
could characterize the Earth’s system. That Earth System Science
that we all talked about, and those disciplines—cryosphere,
the atmosphere, oceans, and solid Earth, and so on. That we would
have a system in place that for the first time could characterize
the entire planet at any given time in a snapshot. That it wasn’t
just taking the temperature of the planet at a few locations and wondering
what it was elsewhere on the planet, but by using spacecraft that
you could in fact take a snapshot in time and say, “Here’s
what the Earth looked like for 30 days.” Then, you do have,
in fact, Earth System Science, because you can in fact see how those
disciplines interact with each other, which is, of course, what Earth
System Science was all about.
If you could, explain why this was such a new concept. Although these
disciplines had been around for a while, was this the first time that
it actually came together as an interdisciplinary method of looking
at the Earth?
Yes. Your words were right on the mark. Those disciplines had all
been around for a very long time. They had not been interdisciplinary.
Why? Well, there’s probably a lot that I don’t know about
why they weren’t. But one way I think about it—and I’ve
said this quite a few times in various discussions—is that up
until the timeframe of ERBS, UARS, and TOPEX/Poseidon, and really
almost through most of that period, but it began to build at that
point—all of Earth Science had to be sustained on what was at
any given time usually about one to one-and-a-half satellites’
worth of data. And very low-rate data, by the way, in those days,
because the communication links were not what they are today. Communication
capabilities were not what they are today. So, the community was data
starved, was the message. They were just lucky to be able to try to
bolster their own understanding with very small amounts of space-based
data at that time.
It was Shelby and Francis and that group of people that you heard
about today that began to say, “If we could actually get more
than one satellite up there at a time with more than one instrument
at a time [we could] begin to really see how some of these disciplines
do interact with each other.” But that thought process had not
been introduced to the policy people and—more importantly, probably—to
the funding people to try to get to something.
In ’89 and ’90, when the EOS New Start was put forward,
the proposal was that we were going to get the astronomical sum of
$20 billion in the next 10 years. We were going to ramp up to $2 billion
a year. This was in real-year dollars back then, so in today’s
dollars, you inflate that—that’s a fairly large number.
That was the starting anticipation, and that was the so-called New
Start that came actually under the first [President George H.W.] Bush
Administration before [President William J. “Bill”] Clinton/
[Vice President Albert A. “Al”] Gore [Jr.] came in. The
expectations were large, just to answer your question. They were great
in those timeframes. We could see this New Start. We got the President’s
going support. We’ve got a large amount of money. We had done
all of the leg-work to identify the vast number of instruments it
would take to lay a capability like that in place.
We were all quite pleased. In fact, to then follow that on, what happened
next was Clinton/Gore came in, and they saw this giant New Start going,
how important Earth Science was, and they felt that we should separate
Earth Science within NASA to become its own, what we now call, Mission
Directorates. At the time, we called them Enterprises, offices of
In 1993, we broke off and created an entire separate entity reporting
to the [NASA] Administrator, called Mission to Planet Earth at first,
and later the Office of Earth Science. That office then picked up
that New Start and was the office that ultimately delivered the realization
of that dream with the launch of Aura, finally, as the last major
piece of that satellite system. At that time we had 16 different satellites
operating, I think.
Speaking of that, you were Director of the Flight Systems Division,
so would you tell us about the responsibilities with that? What did
that mean you were doing as part of your job?
It’s a fascinating story, less about Mike Luther than about
the entire office and the creation of that office, and it’s
a testament, really, to the people of Earth Science, the entire system.
The office was created in ’93 under Dan [Daniel S.] Goldin.
At the time, what that meant was, we separated the rest of Space Science
from Earth Science. Immediately, when they did that—Dan Goldin
made the announcement at a press conference or at a meeting, I remember
this very well, and announced that oh, by the way—he announced
and named the Associate Administrator for the Space Science part of
it, but he only named Shelby as the Acting [Associate Administrator]
of Earth Science.
Of course, we all knew that Shelby had had some run-ins with Dan Goldin
when Dan was in the industry. Sure enough, that meant what it implied—that
Goldin did not intend to keep Shelby in that position. He didn’t
have anybody yet, but that he was going to do that. We were all disappointed,
but we pulled together, and Shelby stayed on for several months while
they searched for a new director. Bill Townsend was his deputy. I
took the position of Director of Flight Systems, which then was just
under Bill and Shelby. I was responsible for overseeing all of the
activity that was ongoing at that time in terms of formulation and
development of all of our missions.
EOS at that point was in formulation. There was a lot of activity,
but we weren’t yet building a lot of hardware. A lot of planning,
a lot of design work, and so on, some hardware, a lot of international
partnerships to be worked on. We were finishing up some stuff that
we had started and a lot of Shuttle-attached payloads, actually. I
did a count, and in that time period of the Earth Science Directorate,
we had 15 different Shuttle-attached payloads, which amazed me when
I looked back at it. That was an intensive effort.
In fact—I don’t want to get too heavy into numbers here,
but I looked back, and over the roughly 10 years from March of ’93
to August of 2004—which is when we put the organizations back
together again—roughly10 year period, we were engaged in some
53 missions: 15 Shuttle payloads, 20 research satellites, 11 reimbursable
missions, and I counted 7 international missions. Very intense time
period. It was that that led to, really, that capability I talked
about of those on-going 16 or so systems that allow us now to, in
fact, characterize the planet at any given time in a number of disciplines,
and has led us down the path that you heard talked about today.
But what I was going to try to make a point about was that over that
10 year period, the people in Earth Science had 5 different associate
administrators. Maybe it’s 6, actually? We started with Len
[Lennard A.] Fisk the day we broke up. So, if you were in Earth Science,
you had Len Fisk on March whatever it was, 1993. The next day, you
had Shelby Tilford. Several months later, you had Charlie [Charles
F.] Kennel. Two years later, you had Bill Townsend act for two years.
Finally, you had Ghassem [R.] Asrar, who was a stability for about
a six-year period. Five years, six years.
Since that time, we’ve had another period of about five years
with five associate administrators. So you get the message, which
is that the half-life, I like to say, of an associate administrator
in this business, tends to be about 18 months. You don’t produce
what’s been produced unless you’ve got people up and down
this floor and at the Centers and at the universities who are dedicated
to this work and are carrying the work out, in spite of all of the
turmoil around them. It’s been a wonderful, exciting ride, as
you heard about some of the stories at the symposium today. It was
a rather interesting thing.
While we’re in that time period, would you like to share some
more about the EOS? This was not a normal New Start, as you mentioned.
This was quite a set with each component having more components. Could
you describe the process of how you were able to gather information
from so many different disciplines and scientists and international
and inter-agencies? It’s very well-choreographed. It looks easy
now, but tell us about those beginning days, and then how it progressed
where it survived and now is successful.
It was, as you can imagine; it morphed quite a bit as we moved along.
We had an initial concept of the class of instrumentation that we
wanted to have as we went forward and began to solidify things and
get a feel for what the budget was and what things cost. A few things
fell by the wayside, or at least got delayed significantly, and had
to come back into the program via maybe other avenues.
What sticks out in my mind was, for example, the embracing of the
Space Station as a strategy to help to push along the idea of EOS.
Where that came from was Space Station, in one of its earlier concepts,
envisioned some co-flying platforms that would carry instrumentation
with it. So we latched on to that as a mechanism to get a unified
program with other parts of NASA to demonstrate to the country that
we were working together internally and so on. We actually brought
in some Space Station people. At one time, we were going to use those
platforms. As Space Station had its own troubles, then that began
to fall away, if you will, into slightly different strategies for
gaining the spacecraft and the instruments.
All along the way, continually working with our international partners,
because getting that New Start, of course, draws attention internationally.
They could see that something real was happening, when you would go
talk to an international partner, and they would say, “I could
give you a microwave imager to fly on your platform to satisfy one
of your needs.” We had published our scientific needs and documentation.
Well, hey, that’s an instrument we didn’t have to fund.
We could partner with them, bring it on board, and then that was part
of the puzzle. The Japanese offered AMSR-E [Advanced Microwave Scanning
Radiometer for EOS]. Another part of Japan, METI [Ministry of Economy,
Trade and Industry], offered ASTER [Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission
and Reflection Radiometer]. The Canadians offered MOPITT [Measurements
of Pollution in the Troposphere]. I’ll forget somebody, but
we had a very international program.
Earth Science has always been a leader in NASA of partnering internationally.
The reason for that was that we understand that first off, it’s
a global problem; you’ve got to have global solutions. So you
can’t do it all yourself. No single agency could afford to do
it. Second off, if you’re going to understand the planet, and
if you need to make national policy from that understanding, then
you’ve got to have everybody looking at the same set of data
and believing that same set of data.
Country A isn’t going to want to make policy on a set of data
that they’re not engaged in, that they don’t feel that
their scientists have owned and looked at and are comfortable with.
So that strategy and thought process is what drove a lot of our open
data policy issues, as well as our partnering. We would drive the
partnering, first and foremost, over the measurement and the hardware.
In a lot of cases, there was some difficulties, but then we had to
hammer out open data policy, so that everybody shared all of the data
all of the time.
That was a little bit of a new thing, because we were in our infancy.
In the early days when there was so limited an amount of space-based
data, the scientists wanted some exclusive period, because that was
their career. They wanted to publish that data and so on. We began
to move away from the scientists having any, or if they did, very
small and short, periods of exclusivity, and into the era of broad
open data policies and competitive activity.
So the system morphed. We went from trying to get to $2 billion a
year, and $20 billion total in 10 years, to ultimately, we ended up
with something less than $8 billion. It got cut. We went through all
kinds of reviews. Everybody had an opinion about how to implement
it differently. We kept changing it and looking at it in different
ways. Ultimately, we did end up moving away from a few very large
platforms to many smaller platforms, although the three big [satellite]
buses, Terra, Aqua, and Aura, survived and of course, are sort of
the flagship missions.
We had many more, both our own small buses and many more partnerships
with other countries. We flew an ozone monitoring instrument with
the Russians. We did lots of different things to fill those data gaps
that we couldn’t maybe quite reach with our program.
Does any one of those three have more of an indention in your memory
of your work? I know those were some of the missions that you worked
It’s hard to say.
Are they like children?
They’re like children. Right. That’s a good analogy. They
are like children. Each is a little different. They had their own
character. The Terra spacecraft was in fact a holdover from the Space
Station. It was built by General Electric, at the time it was called.
It had a slightly different kind of design. It was, in fact, the largest
of the three. It carried very large, complex instruments. Of course,
Chris Scolese, who spoke today, was the project manager and then program
manager for that later on.
Aura was, probably, maybe if I had to pick a favorite, in some ways
a favorite, only because it was perceived to be the follow-on to UARS.
It was the atmospheric chemistry-based observatory. It had a lot of
similar international cooperation. I knew some of the Co-Is [Co-Investigators]
and PIs [Principal Investigators] on the instruments, so that was
kind of a favorite.
But Aqua was also fascinating to work with. I enjoyed each one of
them in their own right. Of course, they each had their own project
managers and project teams as they evolved, so you get to know the
people. Of course, in the end, while we’re all about the science
and so on, it’s also all about the people. You make good friends
and work with a lot of good people as you work your way through those
You end up managing, also, the personalities of the scientists, as
Yes, the personalities of the scientists, and the engineers for that
matter. Engineers can be temperamental, also. Project managers can
be temperamental. So yes, you definitely do. Where we sit here at
Headquarters, after you acquire the money, which is of course the
first thing you have to do, then you have to deal with the allocation
of the money and the people’s reactions to directions and disappointments,
for that matter, sometimes. When money has to be moved from one place
to another, it may negatively affect one project.
With the PIs, it’s getting them to deliver their instruments
on time and be happy with the data and so on. It is a very challenging
thing to do, but, it’s a lot of fun. As I was talking to Bill
Townsend today, it’s not so much fun at the time, but after
it’s over, you go, “Well, it was okay.”
You like looking at that data, and I was just thinking, as a trained
mathematician, you have gathered now quite a bit of science information
just by dealing with all these different projects.
Yes, one of the really fun parts of the job now is that I’m
more of an administrator and part-time psychologist, I think, than
engineer or scientist. But, I do have the opportunity to sit in meetings
and get briefed on either results from existing missions or plans
for upcoming missions. It’s absolutely fascinating.
As our Chief Scientist, just next door to me, Paul Hertz, says, “Don’t
ever forget the wow factor.” You get to do this everyday. That’s
what I keep telling myself. They actually pay me to come and get exposed
to all of this wonderful scientific information. In the meantime,
there’s just a little bit of aggravation, but that’s well
worth the effort.
But yes. It’s been a very fascinating ride through Earth Sciences,
as you heard a lot about today. I’ve been lucky enough to be
pretty close to a lot of it. The more I think about it, the more I
think how lucky I am to have been to be able to do that.
Speaking of rides, your projects—your children—have taken
different ways to get to where they need to go. I know that when you
were working on that level, you put some on the Shuttle, some launched
at Vandenberg [Air Force Base, California]. Are there things that
you have to do to prepare them differently, and what was that process
in working with the different Centers?
Actually, it’s been an amazing experience base. Let me just
say a couple of things. One is that most of what we do gets launched
on U.S.-based launch vehicles, i.e., either Shuttle or a commercial
launch provider from the United States. Nowadays, there’s really
only two—ULA [United Launch Alliance] and Orbital [Sciences
Corporation]—that we use. Those two are in and of themselves
extremely different. Because Shuttle involves humans on the launch,
it’s extremely complex. The complexity of that launch vehicle
is just amazing every time you go through it. We were using it extensively
in the late 80s.
Then, when the [Space Shuttle] Challenger [STS 51-L accident] first
came along, we migrated away from it and have used it very, very little.
The primary exception being Hubble [Space Telescope]. Of course, we
just got through with the Hubble Servicing Mission IV, so I got a
chance to go back and be engaged in that for the first time in quite
a few years; it’s probably been 10 years or more, at least,
since I had been engaged in a Shuttle integration and launch and mission.
On the one hand, it hasn’t changed a lot. On the other hand,
it has changed. It hasn’t changed in the complexity and the
detail and the attention to detail, and the way they basically core
operate. It has changed in the additional requirements they carry
as a result of Challenger and [Space Shuttle] Columbia [STS-107],
the additional care and risk management that they do in those areas.
It just makes it even more complex. Yet, we pulled off a beautiful
Hubble repair mission that was 100 percent successful, so my hat is
off to the Shuttle folks. I know they’re struggling emotionally
with the policy direction to get away from Shuttle.
On the expendable side, we work with a couple of suppliers, as I mentioned,
but all that, our single point of contact in NASA is through [NASA]
Kennedy [Space Center, Florida]. We have a launch service provider
program that does that interface for us. I enjoy working with them,
but the systems are significantly different.
The smaller system of the ones we use is called a Pegasus [rocket].
It launches from under an L-1011. It carries smaller payloads and
is just a total different launch day experience than a standard pad-based
rocket, a Delta-II or an Atlas. We’ve heavily used Delta-IIs.
They’re going out of business. We hate to see that happen, but
time moves on in the marketplace.
We’re going to Atlas-Vs now as the larger unit and that is going
to be a new experience. We’ve done some Atlas-Vs already, but
it’s going to be a different world because more people are going
to them and the manifest is getting crowded. It’s very, very
difficult to find a slot on the manifest.
The other interesting thing, getting back to the Earth Science part
of this, is that from a launch vehicle standpoint, the majority of
Earth Science payloads tend to want to go into a polar orbit. If you’re
going to get into a polar orbit on a U.S.-launched vehicle, you need
to be launched from the west coast, from Vandenberg. Can’t get
there from Kennedy, simply because of the safety issues of flying
over land. From Kennedy, you’ve got to go east somehow, even
just a little bit; whereas, in central California, you can go due
south and you miss Los Angeles in that direction.
So it’s a different world, a smaller team, no less intense,
no less dedicated, but slightly smaller team to launch a Delta-II
or an Atlas out on the west coast. Then, I guess the other thing I
would contrast is that on occasion, we do partner and use foreign
launch vehicles. We have used a couple. We’ve launched an instrument
on a Russian spacecraft on a Russian rocket. Of course, that’s
not too new today, because we use Russian rockets to go to Space Station,
but back when we did it in the 80s, it was a little rarer.
We also have used a Russian rocket that was purchased by our German
partner in a mission and launched GRACE [Gravity Recovery and Climate
Experiment] using that vehicle from over in Russia. While I did not
physically go there, my employees went, and came back with wonderfully
interesting stories about how the Russians work versus how we work
on launch vehicles and so on.
We’ve had launch missions and joint activities with the Japanese
and their H-II rocket, not unlike one of our Delta-IIs, I would say.
I have been lucky enough to go to a couple of those launches out in
The short answer is the complexities of preparing payloads in those
environments that are so different from our environments are pretty
labor intensive. Very labor intensive. But we do it. Our people are
dedicated. They go to the launch sites in advance, work out the logistics,
make sure that things are clean. If we’ve got any outdoor issues
that we need to protect sensitive hardware, we take care. I think
we had to have somebody babysit our SAGE [Stratosphere Aerosol and
Gas Experiment] instrument 24 hours a day when it was in Russia before
they launched it, because people were afraid they would get some of
our electronics or something out of it.
The launch business is a fascinating business that until I came into
this position and had been through so many launches—I have to
honestly say that I started out in remote sensing and instruments,
and I did not have an appreciation for the complexities of launch
vehicles. I thought they were just big, dumb explosions that just
happened. When you realize what goes into one, you realize it’s
a real challenge. I have a lot of respect for the launch vehicle people.
They do a wonderful job.
We’ve been lucky. We just lost one OCO (Orbiting Carbon Observatory)
mission due to a failure of the launch vehicle. In total, I’ve
been associated with 50 or 60 launches, an upper number like that.
That’s the only launch failure—I take that back; there
was one other one. Two launch failures in some very large number of
launches that I’ve been associated with, so it’s more
than luck. There is some luck, but it’s hard work by everybody’s
job to do.
If we can, I’d like to pick up with asking you about working
with other agencies within the nation. I know that you work with USGS
[United States Geological Survey], of course NOAA. If you could explain
how these partnerships work well, and what are maybe some of the challenges
of working with these groups?
Yes, we do work with quite a few other agencies. Dominant in my mind
at this point, of course, NOAA is probably the biggest partner. But,
significantly with USGS on the Landsat [Land Remote Sensing Satellite]
program. We’ve worked and of course currently we’re working
very closely with the DoD [Department of Defense] and Air Force on
the NPOESS-NPP [National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental
Satellite System-NPOESS Preparatory Project] program. In the past,
we’ve had a wonderful mission called Shuttle Radar Topography
Mission, in 2000, in which we worked with, at the time; it was referred
to as the Defense Mapping Agency, where we had a partnership.
We’ve really had a breadth of experience with domestic, as we
refer to them, partners. What’s interesting is that you realize
that each partner has its own mission, and consequently it has its
own objectives for any given partnership, and that those can come
in conflict on some level with NASA’s mission, which is predominantly
research. It’s always a rather interesting situation.
We’ve gone through various waves, especially with NOAA, because
it’s been such a long partnership. We’ve been with them
for some 40 years or more, developing and launching for them the weather
systems GOES [Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite System]
and POES [Polar Operational Environmental Satellite System], and then
turning them over to them, more recently on NPOESS, and also with
transitioning certain capabilities to them.
The interesting characteristics are that everybody likes space. I
guess I’ll say it that way. Everybody wants to be a space agency,
but the country really only has one civilian space agency, and it
is NASA. Therein lies the source of some conflict sometimes.
If you take our partners, for example, NOAA and USGS, they have similar
difficulties in the following characteristic. They’re both sub-elements
of a much larger cabinet-level organizations. NASA, as you know, is
a stand-alone, called an independent agency. Our [NASA] Administrator
is a Presidential appointee and reports to the President. We don’t
have to go through another cabinet officer or whatever. Although he’s
not a cabinet member, our Administrator, he doesn’t have to
report through that either.
Whereas, at NOAA, they have to report through the Department of Commerce.
At USGS, they have to report through the Department of Interior. The
Departments have lots of other varied interests that aren’t
necessarily in space, especially when they realize how expensive space
is to do right and to perform in. This gives their people—their
budget people, their administrative people, people who aren’t
familiar with space—some pause. It’s more difficult to
communicate with them about the cost of things, why things need to
be done in a certain way on a certain timescales.
It’s never a personal conflict with these organizations. We
get along famously with the people, but organizationally, their mission
makes them think slightly differently about their priorities within
their budgetary realms, and so on. Consequently, that creates friction
in trying to be a partner with them quite often.
DoD and Air Force, on the other hand, have a large space experience
base, but they do business dramatically differently than we do. They
rely very, very heavily on aerospace as a contractor to perform oversight
for them, whereas we have 17,000 people that we employ constantly
that do space. There are differences that I won’t dwell on with
the way DoD and the Air Force acquires their systems, but with them
pretty much the origin of the conflict is the methodology, the way
they relate to the contractors; and their tolerance for risk, also,
is somewhat different than ours.
That said, we have launched a very large number of polar orbiting
weather satellites for NOAA, as well as geostationary satellites.
We partnered with the Defense Mapping Agency in 2000 and had a Shuttle
mission that mapped the entire planet between plus and minus 60 degrees
latitude. In one 11-day mission, we mapped the entire planet’s
topography to something like nine meters, I think, of resolution up
and down. This is something that they had a plan to do that was going
to extend for 30 or 40 years, to do it with ground-based observations
and have them be all resolved with each other for accuracy. We just
did it in 11 days from the Shuttle.
On NPOESS now, we’re struggling, the NPOESS system. The responsibility
there lies with the Air Force, and so our role is sort of a junior
partner on that. Still, we’re there to help to bring technology
and try to make the system be as good as it can possibly be.
We’ve done a lot for the country, and we look forward to doing
a lot in the future, especially with NOAA, as we transition a lot
of our research missions over to have them do them on a repeat basis,
and help produce long-term climate records. That’s the goal
of that activity.
Since you mention the records, what do you think is the significance
of having consistent data for now 10, 15, sometimes 20 years, that
scientists and scholars can view and analyze?
Perhaps reaching beyond the boundary of my scientific knowledge, but
I think the best way to talk about it in terms of layman’s terms
is that the weather predictions are very near-term, relatively speaking.
We’ve recently increased our capability in three, five, and
seven-day type forecasts, working towards 10-day forecasts, perhaps,
in the weather systems. Those forecast are particularly dynamic, so
the accuracy coarseness, if you will, needed to make those measurements
isn’t nearly as demanding as when you’re looking at a
If you’re going to predict climate, first you’re talking
about the difference between climate at weather’s timescale,
right? Another way to think about it is you’re looking for very
small changes in a very low signal. In order to see that very small
change in a very low signal or small signal, you have to look at that
signal for a very, very long time, very, very accurately, and you’ve
got to keep watching it and try to see what its trends are and how
that it moves. If you interrupt that chain for some reason, and then
come back to look at it again, there’s always a question in
your mind of whether or not you’re using the same quality instrument,
whether they’re calibrated the same as the instruments you used
In climate, we like to have our measurements when we go from one satellite
to another measuring the Earth’s irradiative heat, just to take
a simple example. We like to have those instruments overlap by about
six months, so that we can see that the new instrument that’s
about to take over for the next five or six years, how it relates
to the old instrument and its five or six or whatever year record
it had, so that we don’t lose that continuity. We can calibrate
them against each other.
The challenge of climate is it requires long-term, continuous, overlapping,
well-calibrated, highly sensitive measurements. Whereas, weather,
if I have a gap in my weather prediction, then I just can’t
predict the weather Wednesday. But, if I then replace the instrument,
I can pick it up on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and no harm, no
foul, because that’s all I’m trying to do, just look at
that chunk of data.
But, if I’ve got 10 years’ worth of climate data and I
drop the measurement, then I got to sort of start over. It’s
not impossible, but it’s very difficult to get back and link
up your data sets. That’s the challenge of climate. That’s
why we’re struggling so hard to make sure that we do have overlap
in some of these measurements and make sure we understand which are
the highest priority measurements to have that overlap in.
I know that you’re now responsible for the program and project
management oversight functions for the Science Mission Directorate,
as well as NASA’s Deep Space and Low-Earth Orbit Communication
Networks. You mention that the Directorate currently has more than
80 missions in formulation, development, or operations. There’s
a lot to juggle and to keep going. How do you manage to do this, and
what is the difficulty in balancing those research missions and operations
missions, those ones that need to happen now, and the ones that need
to be in place for the future?
Yes, well, one minor correction is that we’ve recently moved
the communications portion of that to another directorate, so I don’t
have to deal with that.
Well, it’s good to have one less thing.
One less thing, right. But we still have 80-some-odd missions in some
stage of development, formulation, or operations. We structure ourselves
into divisions that are responsible for the different disciplines.
Then, those divisions have both—we call them program executives
and program scientists, sort of the engineer and science team, along
with a budget person to track each of their major missions. Then they
leverage the information that flows up from our implementing centers
to monitor out into the field. They actually go into the field, visit
the sites, attend reviews, and so on. Then they bring that information,
through various written and oral communication devices, back to Headquarters.
I personally run a review, lasts two full days each month, at which
I go over each one of our missions in some fashion. The ones that
are operating and are doing well, we don’t spend much time on.
The ones that are in formulation, we just track and make sure that
they’re moving in the right direction. The ones that are in
implementation, that is to say, we have committed to Congress the
schedule and technical content and dollar amount from the time until
it launches and gets on orbit and begins to operate, because that’s
the peak spending time. That’s where you spend most of your
time worrying about them, because that’s where the money is
going. Follow the money, as they say.
We spend most of our time at our monthly reviews going through those
missions and those stages and trying to identify problems, taking
corrective actions, making sure we understand where we are, basically,
just managing the programs. We communicate directly with the Centers
that are responsible for them, either through the divisions, or in
some cases, if appropriate, from myself or from Ed [Edward J. Weiler,
current Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate],
to make corrective actions and redirect or reprioritize, in cases,
what needs to be done.
It’s fascinating work. I enjoy it, but I depend on a cadre of
scientists and engineers here on the floor as well as at the field
Centers to execute and report and take action as need be. If I feel
that we’re not getting where we need to be fast enough, then
we get together with the implementing Center and map out a strategy
for corrective action.
You just mentioned funding. When you’re working with international
partners and you’re working with domestic partners, you each
have your own funding venues. What happens when somebody stops somewhere
in between, and how does that affect what you have to do to get things
Yes. It does happen. As you point out, we execute our partnerships
for the major part on what we call a “no exchange of funds basis,”
so we decide how the program looks. We divide up the parts of the
program. Then we say, “You build that and deliver it. I’ll
build this and deliver it. We’ll decide who pays for the integration
and launch and so on.” We all have our own pot of money to do
the things we committed to do.
The failure comes or the difficulty comes when somebody can’t
meet their commitment. That can come in a couple of flavors. One is,
the money doesn’t flow fast enough, and you get behind schedule.
Then, of course, in very rare cases, once we’ve actually struck
the partnership, sometimes some people do back out, but that’s
pretty rare. These are international missions of high prestige, high-profile.
In fact, we sign what is effectively a treaty on international missions.
On domestic missions we sign what we call MOUs [Memorandum of Understanding]
between agency heads, and so on. By the time you get to that point,
everybody is committed to do the job.
Now, what we do say is we like to communicate, communicate, communicate.
If you’re having difficulty, whether it be funding or technical,
that is causing you to be late, you want to let your partner know
as quickly as possible. You want to do everything you can to avoid
it, if possible. In some cases, it’s just unavoidable. We all
have to then say, “Look, that’s the price of the partnership.”
An example of that that is particularly disquieting right now is that
we have a satellite that’s ready to launch. Our piece of it
is ready to go and has been for quite some time. The DoD is trying
to deliver two instruments to it, and they’re late. They’re
very late. By years. We’re holding up the launch, because those
instruments are extremely important to us scientifically, so we’re
just paying the freight.
We’ve gotten inventive. We’ve ramped down and got people
off the job and try to manage it and we keep the bill as low as possible,
but it’s still a drain on our program. They’re not reimbursing
us for it. That’s just the price of the partnership. We expect
that if the tables were reversed and we had that unfortunate situation,
we would expect them to do the same. It’s sort of a gentlemen’s
But it’s fairly rare. Every once in a while, it’s not
unusual on an international partnership, one partner maybe gets a
month or so out of sync. But, that’s not the end of the world.
You can usually deal with a few weeks and adjust things. It’s
if it gets much longer than that then it really gets expensive and
You’ve been in your field for quite a while. You might be able
to say that technology has been your best friend, at the same time,
been your worst enemy. Can you give me an example of where technology
has changed? Where it has benefited Earth System Science greatly,
but at the same time, with the current or the constant evolution of
it, has it ever caused a problem where you’ve had to go back
and maybe do something different?
Yes. I guess I can think of one or two of what are pretty classic
examples. One is just sort of a broad picture, which is that because
our science has matured now over these 20 years. One of the things
that we tend to talk about is that we’re moving from two-dimensional
characterization to three-dimensional characterization of the Earth.
In the early days, the Landsats and the ERBS and so on were mostly
looking down, taking various pictures in various wavelengths and looking
at a flat space and characterizing it in two dimensions.
As we begin to get into atmospheric work, we were able to do a few
things, occultations, where you could get vertical profiles. But because
of the way that we had to do it, they were very limited geographically.
You always had this trade of, I can do a big geographic area, but
I can’t go up and down, or I can go up and down, but I can only
do it over a narrow column, and it takes me a long time to get all
of that data.
We’re now moving to more aggressive use of active sensors, radars
and LIDARs [Light Detection and Ranging]. The radars we have been
using for sea surface winds and altimetry going back quite some years.
The capabilities in those areas have expanded, and so we’re
now looking at using more powerful radars to do more extensive and
What really seems to be new recently is we’re much more confident
in being able to use our laser systems, our LIDAR systems. We demonstrated
that on ICESat [Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite]. We refer
to ICESat as the first civilian laser system for Earth Remote Sensing
research. It was a very challenging mission. The lasers themselves
had some lifetime challenges that ended up where we had to modify
our operations in order to save the life of the lasers. However, we’ve
gotten quite a few years, now, of data from them just by calibrating
that system and learning to use it and the cleanliness requirements.
That whole laser technology area is a fertile ground for Earth Remote
Sensing in particular.
I think the Decadal Survey calls for the use of more radars and lasers,
not surprisingly, as we move into this era. It’s been a wonderful
challenge, but we can do it better. We have a laser system on CALIPSO
[Cloud-Aerosol LIDAR and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation],
also, built about the same time as the ICESat system. A slightly different
system, but it is performing at a much higher level of confidence.
We’re very pleased with those and those systems are very good.
I mentioned the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. When that was getting
ready to fly, I swore I was ready to wring the neck of the person
who committed us to it, because of the challenges of having a synthetic
aperture radar on the Shuttle, and having to have a 180-foot boom
come out of the Shuttle Payload Bay with a radar system on the end
of it, and have the knowledge of where it was relative to the Shuttle
itself so well understood in order to interpret the data. We all were,
I think, questioning whether or not we would be fully successful in
that mission. It turned out to work wonderfully. Sometimes, the ones
you worry about the most are the ones that work the best.
I love a quote from John [W.] Young, when he was sitting on top of
one of the launchers, I think. They radioed up and said, “John,
what are you worried about?” He said, “I’m not worried
about anything we’ve thought about.” I thought that a
great quote. If you thought about it, we usually work it to death.
So, technology is a wonderful challenge, but sometimes you think,
“Are we really going to do this?” JWST, James Webb Space
Telescope, is in development right now. Every time I hear about it
every month, I go, “Oh my goodness.” The details of what
we have to do to make that entire system work and bringing all of
that technology together in space is just an amazing challenge. It’s
You’ve met so many challenges over these last 20 years. Let’s
talk, if you would, for a few minutes, about the key elements, or
the decisions, events, that you believe provided the current direction
of Earth System Science.
That’s an excellent question. I really think that there are
two or three key events or turning points, areas, that I can point
to. One is just the infancy of Earth Science with the selling and
the development of ERBS, UARS, and TOPEX. That was sort of the beginning
in my mind. Not just because I was there, I don’t think, but
because that’s when people started really paying attention,
saying, “There’s some stuff we really need to do here,
and we’re going to put some investment into this, we’re
going to really put some big systems up there and go make some measurements.”
That was sort of the kick off. As you mentioned, at that same time,
then Shelby and Francis Bretherton and everybody, the collective intellect
of that time, was saying, “Okay, so we got people thinking about
it now. How do we really get to the next step?” So, Earth System
Science, that terminology, that report by Bretherton and the whole
infusion of that thought process into the community, not only the
science community but the political community, was obviously huge.
Then that was followed, or as a result came EOS. Clearly, those were
the big sociopolitical, scientific events that shaped Earth science
at the beginning.
Then we went through this period of struggle where EOS, I think what
happened is people looked at it and said, “Well, gee, they got
it—$20 billion over the next 10 years. They’re going to
fill the dark in the sky with satellites and go forward and do all
of this.” So, it was a struggle for the community to deal with—there
was a perception, and to some extent it was true, that, “Well,
they got all of this money, and they know what they’re going
to build, and they’ve picked the instrument people, so we have
now the Earth scientists that are either the haves, they’re
either part of EOS, or they’re the have-nots, they’re
not part of it, and there’s no way to be part of it for ten
years. Because that’s all that Earth Science is going to do
for the next few years.”
It was almost in the arena of be careful what you ask for because
you may get it, and then you don’t realize the unintended consequences.
An unintended consequence was that we got the big start, and then
there were people who said, “Oh my goodness, they got that,
and I’m not part of it.”
We had to go through a maturation of the community, and of the program,
in fact, to open it up again so that we could get new people into
it. That’s when we did some new things. We created some new
programs called Earth System Science Pathfinders—where if you
weren’t part of Terra, Aqua, and so on, you had an opportunity.
When we chopped up some of the other missions, and we got inventive,
and as Shelby said, put our thinking hats on, we found ways to then
begin to embrace the community. We got that realization over with
and that hump, and so I think we were doing pretty well there.
Then, I would say that perhaps the most recent shift has been the
result of NPOESS. When NPOESS came along, it was a Presidential decision
directive that said, “You’re going to merge the two weather
systems, the defense weather system and the civilian weather system.”
It didn’t say anything about climate, didn’t say one word
about climate. At that time, which was about ’94, if I remember
right, climate was mostly in NASA’s mind, but through sheer,
as I like to say, force of will of basically from a lot of dedicated
NASA people, climate came on the scene. That’s what we’ve
been talking about here. It got talked about.
Then by sheer force of will, it got built into the NPOESS system.
We started adding Earth radiation budget sensors and solar sensors.
There was talk of altimetry missions, how that would be encompassed
into NPOESS. We modified the MOUs and the management structure so
that people could get climate information. We struck agreements on
modifying next generation weather instruments to make them of better
quality, so that they could do climate job.
Working closely with NOAA, we began to transfer those requirements
into NPOESS. That, in and of itself, was a huge piece of strategic
thinking. Some argued then and argue now that it was bad strategy.
But, it was a strategy. I’m not going to try to pass judgment
on it, because I don’t know what we would have done differently,
So we did that. Then our worst nightmare was what happened, which
was that a set of laws kicked in, called Nunn-McCurdy [Amendment introduced
by Senator Sam Nunn and Congressman Dave McCurdy] on the [Capitol]
Hill that affect the Air Force. The Air Force had to go, and the first
thing they did was toss all of the climate stuff overboard. Since
there was no hard written agreement anywhere at the Presidential level
that said they had to do that, there wasn’t any way to stop
it. It [the integration of climate capability into the NPOESS system]
had happened because everybody knew it was the right thing to do,
and we all just worked at it real hard.
That leads us to where we are today, which is we still will get some
significant climate measurements from NPOESS through the VIIRS [Visible
Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite] instrument and the CrIS [Cross-track
Infrared and Advanced Technology Microwave Sounders] instrument and
the ATMS [Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder] instrument. Assume
they will perform right. They will give us next-generation weather
and some long-term climate measurements. That’s important. But
they put at risk, then, other climate measurements that all of the
sudden we don’t have plans for and we have to try to scramble.
That’s what we’re in the throes of right now.
I guess the good news, one can say, is that in the 20-some-odd years,
we’ve gone from really onesie-twosie spacecraft, discipline
focused, is it atmospheric chemistry or is it an altimetry mission
or is it an Earth Radiation Budget mission, to interdisciplinary missions,
to 16 spacecraft across lots of disciplines, to worrying now more
about the measurements than we are about the instruments or the disciplines
themselves. But what are the climate measurements you’re making?
So that’s a pretty good set of progress. It’s not bad
for 20 years.
I was going to ask you what you thought was some of the greatest accomplishments?
Would you list that as one? Being able to move toward that thought
Absolutely. I think the state of the dialogue has to be listed. The
pure state of the dialogue has to be listed as a success story. Who
would have thought that in the days of the mid-to-late eighties that
we would be talking about data gaps in climate records and somewhat?
Some people dreamed it, but we are having that dialogue, and the country
The sheer shift of the dialogue in the last five years to the recognition
of climate has been amazing, because until then, there were enough
detractors from that dialogue that it didn’t have as much traction.
But in the last four to five years, that dialogue has moved to the
public forum. Not because the administration wanted it to, necessarily,
or we wanted it to, or any particular group wanted it to, simply because
the quality and quantity of the science brought it there. It was undeniable.
I think that goes back to the fact that we did deliver on EOS. We
did put those 16, ended up being 16 or so satellites up to monitor
in all of those disciplines in the Earth System Science. We did have
a free and open data policy. We delivered on all of that. Now, we’re
seeing the fruits of it in that those results are getting into the
community. In fact, not only into the science community, and in the
world community, but into the lay community for this dialogue to take
If you’ve been as close to it as people like I have for 25 years
or so—actually longer than that if you go all the way back—you
know that it has been a huge success to move from that early, not
only capability, but that early dialogue to the current capability
and the current dialogue. Therein lies the grand measure, I think,
of the success. Being able to effectively understand and predict El
Niños. Who’d have thought it? Three-dimensional rainfall
measurements, looking through clouds with lasers and radars, and looking
at aerosols at the level that we look at them now.
Just the fact that we now understand the importance of aerosols. When
we first started talking about EOS, I don’t remember aerosols
being a very big discussion point. It was out there. It wasn’t
being ignored. But, subsequently, we’ve been able to quantify
the uncertainties associated with our measurements and with climate
over aerosols, so we’re trying to increase our knowledge of
aerosols. We’re constantly rebalancing the priorities of the
We’ve talked about some of the accomplishments, but do you believe
through those last 20-25 years, there have been some missed opportunities
that you wish maybe you could have taken another pass to get something
accomplished along the way?
It’s been so busy, I can hardly think about it. Probably. Clearly,
from a previous reference, I guess I’d have to say that NPOESS
and the convergence clearly could have been handled better. I haven’t
thought a lot about what we could have done differently. I think it
was clearly the right direction to go to try to leverage that system
to be a climate system. What we should have done, in retrospect—but
maybe the timing maybe just wasn’t right—was try to get
the political system to acknowledge the need for climate back then,
and not just think of it as a weather system. That had to evolve over
time. Maybe there wasn’t anything we could do about it. I don’t
know. We’ll have to think about that.
The one thing that we didn’t do, and I say “we”
collectively as a nation, and we still don’t have standing here
or sitting here today, is a well-articulated strategy for developing
and maintaining a climate monitoring system. We are still, as a nation,
it’s being done basically by sheer force of will, mostly of
NASA. Nobody has written a Presidential decision directive that says,
“We shall have a climate monitoring system, and it shall be
conducted in the following fashion.” We haven’t been able
to bring ourselves to deal with that as a nation.
That’s a missed opportunity. It’s a missed opportunity
not to have been able to bring NOAA, somehow politically, into a world
where they could actually take on the technologies that we develop
and make them operational more easily. We’re ready to hand them
off. I’m not blaming it on NOAA. The political system, the way
the agencies operate, simply makes it very, very difficult for them
to do that. It looks like they’re going to do that on altimetry.
After we’ve flown three of them, they’re going to maybe
fly the fourth. We’ll see if their budget holds up.
Most of the missed opportunities, I think, at the national level,
at those kinds of levels, I think we’ve done well partnering.
We’ve never walked away from a partnership. We’ve had
a few people walk away from us. Rarely, but sometimes. So I don’t
think we’ve missed many opportunities to do things right. We
took some risks with some things that actually, I thought, paid off
quite well. I think the missed opportunities lay in the strategy area
and the big national policy area.
What do you believe needs to happen in the next years to set the foundation
for the next 20 years for Earth Science? As you mention, one of them
was to have a climate monitoring system in place. Do you feel that
is something that’s essential to fully utilize what the Earth
System Science has already put in place? If so, what else is on your
mind about those?
Yes, you’ve got my tip-off. I do think that consistent with
the missed opportunities, what needs to happen in the near term, and
this needs to be said correctly, is that we need to have a national
strategy for developing and maintaining a climate monitoring system.
The reason I’m saying that that way is that that strategy can
involve several agencies. So, I don’t know that you necessarily
want to say that one agency is in charge of that. I don’t know.
I don’t know the answer. I’m not pre-judging the answer.
I know that given the current structure and budgetary limitations,
NASA is a research agency and under today’s conditions, we’re
not prepared to be an operational agency, that is to say to make the
same measurements over and over and over. We could do that, but we’d
have to change our structure. We’d have to change our mission.
We’d have to change our budget and resource guidelines. It would
be a full change of mission for us if we were going to do that. We
could, but it would take that kind of national commitment.
In the absence of that commitment, we’re always going to struggle
with that situation where we know what it takes to have a climate
monitoring system, but we don’t have the resources and the wherewithal
to put it in place. We’re going to be constantly struggling
with that tension of what we can contribute to it, how we can help
to move it forward, but it will almost always be lacking in some fashion
because of that.
Whereas, if we could evolve a national-level agreement for resources
with the administration and Congress marshalling the capabilities
of, perhaps, NASA, NOAA, USGS, maybe the Air Force, DoD, I don’t
know, maybe the National Science Foundation could play a role in that.
Maybe DoE [Department of Energy]. There are other agencies that could
contribute in some fashion. So the government is like a large corporation
with different divisions, and the President, the CEO [Chief Executive
Officer], needs to set that strategy for the different divisions and
help them understand what role he or she thinks they ought to play
in this grand strategy.
That’s the biggest thing. I think, from a pure NASA-centric
standpoint, it’s sort of the mirror image of that. We will want
to continue to advance Earth Science. We’ll want to continue
to try to contribute to data records as best we can, while striking
the balance of doing new research and taking our results and feeding
them back into new instruments and either get the next generation
of measurements and models, or better measurements and models, or
more resolution. Wherever the science drives us.
That’s the nature of our business. We’re a science investigative
research organization. We’re a feedback organization. We don’t
want to ever lose that. That’s why we’re so concerned
about, we know that need for monitoring and what we tend to call operations
is, but we can’t be drawn into that, not totally, because it
would consume us wholly. Then we wouldn’t be doing the investigative
part of it, the research and the technology and the wherewithal. We’ll
have to continue to fight that struggle until told to do otherwise.
Do you have a vision for what you would like possibly the next EOS-type
New Start to be? Is there something out in the talks with your colleagues?
Luther: That’s a really good question. We just got—just,
by our standards—within the last two years, the first Decadal
Survey for Earth Science. Some of the other Space Science disciplines
have been doing decadal surveys from the National Academies for some
time, but Earth Science had not done that until fairly recently, a
couple years ago.
Now we have this on the table, which is the collective wisdom of a
large group of very smart people as to what the next generation of
measurements ought to be. In some sense, it is the next EOS. They
spaced it out over ten years, and they told us, sort of coarsely,
which one should come first. Not specifically, not one by one, but
in three groups. This group first, this group second, this group third.
That is what we would plan to do. It’s clear the minute that
the ink dried on it that we don’t have the resources to do it,
not even in 10 years. If the budget and the resources are increased
to EOS-class, $2 billion a year was the number that we talked about
before, which is in the decadal survey, then there’s hope that
we could exercise that roughly in a 10 year or so period. Perhaps
longer, but still not too far off from that.
But what it assumed was that the NPOESS system was going to do the
things that had been agreed to and worked out. We’ve got the
decadal survey that isn’t fully funded. In addition, we’ve
got some breakage from the NPOESS system that we have to figure out
how to fix; that’s what we’re struggling with now.
We think that this administration [President Barack Obama] has clearly
demonstrated through its words that they want to dedicate some more
resources and focus to Earth Science. So, we’re hopeful that
we’ll get some support. We’ll have to go through a couple
of budget cycles to see where exactly we are to get there, but I think
the decadal survey provides that road map for us.
If you look at it, it makes sense as the next logical step from EOS,
really. A combination of better accuracies, better coverage, more
three-dimensional measurements, as we talked about, and adds some
knowledge into aerosols and things like that that we’ve since
learned about. Something like that will be the road map that we’re
going to follow.
It sounds like good timing for it to come out when it did.
You’ve talked this afternoon about your experiences and also
about Earth System Science experiences. When I was putting some notes
together, I was thinking about how Earth System Science has been reshaped
and refocused, reprioritized, rebalanced. I guess, if nothing else,
it’s been resilient. I think you’ve used the term force
of will. How would you characterize it? What propels it? What keeps
the momentum of this overall effort moving toward more than just survival,
and how has it not been defeated over these last 20 years, with all
of the—I think one of the words you used was turmoil. It’s
gone through its scrapes, and how has it come out to be so successful?
That’s an excellent question. I alluded to it, I think, when
I first started talking. First and foremost, it’s the sheer
dedication of the literally thousands of individual people that are
engaged in this enterprise. The fact that they believe in it. After
all, it’s pretty easy, I like to say, to believe that protecting
the Earth is a good thing to do. Oh, by the way, you can almost explain
it to your mother-in-law. Most of it; so that part is very nice.
But I think a couple of things. One is that the people believe so
strongly in it. It has, in fact grown from really an infant, in some
sense, to certainly a young adult, if you put it in human terms, in
a 20-year period. That’s a career. We’ve got people like
myself who were lucky enough to be born at the right time and get
engaged, certainly not at the very, very beginning, but when it really
got interesting. When people woke up and said, “Hey, Earth Science
really is something that’s important.”
We’ve had just enough excitement all along the way to keep us
from getting too discouraged at the low points. As I kept saying during
the refocus, rephasing, and the budget kept going down, the number
kept getting smaller, but all along the way, my mantra was constantly,
“Well, look, we ought to be able to do something good for,”
fill-in-the-blank: $10 billion dollars, $9 billion, $8 billion. You
just keep reminding yourself, “Yeah, they took another,”
pick a number, “billion dollars away from us in the last exercise.
We still got a lot of money. We’re building hardware. We’re
delivering. We’re getting stuff on orbit.” It’s
just the human spirit. You don’t want to give up.
I will say that it was rather interesting to see the fact that the
New Start for EOS was in ’89, the ’90 budget. The first
really big year, I guess, was ’99. It was almost 10 years to
go from a New Start to the first big satellite. That was a long time,
and it was a struggle. It was because we went through all of those
re-plans, re-budgeting, chopping things up. It was just incredible.
In between, as I mentioned, we spun off as a separate entity in terms
of within NASA, as a Mission Directorate. We went through a couple
of three AAs [Associate Administrators]. Finally, Ghassem Asrar was
selected in ’98. At the time, he asked me to be his deputy.
More or less the same position that I’m in right now. Boy, the
next seven years until 2004, when we put the organizations back together
and launched Aura, that was when we launched most of those 16 missions.
It wasn’t that Ghassem did it, or I did it. It was all the people
that spent the 10 years getting there. But there was this huge pent-up
capacity that we had built. We were getting it there. It just so happens
that it all came spewing out, spread over about six or seven years.
All of those spacecraft, instruments, and missions all got delivered
and integrated. We put them on rockets, and we got them launched.
It was a very, very intense period right there when we had that capability
and had all that frustration. I guess what I’m trying to get
across is 10 years, 9 years, whatever it was, of work, and you’re
not seeing anything go into space to speak of. We were doing a lot
of small stuff and Shuttle missions and some things, but you’re
not really seeing that big EOS thing going up there. But that’s
what this business is. You have to do that. You struggle, and you
get it, and you get it in place, and then finally, when it’s
right, you launch it. It just so happens that stuff just sort of got
Boy, when we released it, we were having four, five, six launches
a year for the next six years, it seemed like. International partners
and all kinds of stuff. It was an amazing pay-off that you could see
in your career. That while there was thing long period of frustration
and re-planning, and so on, if you hung in there long enough, you
got to see the result come out of the end.
Then, as I said, the change in the dialogue, the delivery of the science,
change in the public discourse. The timescales we work on are climatological
in nature, I guess.
Well, I believe, on my end, I’ve covered pretty much of what
I wanted to ask you and ask you to share with us. But, I wanted to
ask you, too, I know you made some notes, and I’ll give you
a second to review to see if there is something you’d like to
add before we close out today.
Well, you gave me enough time and rope, so to speak, to cover everything,
I think. I just want to make a comment. I got to thinking about how
many really fascinating and unique experiences I had on almost each
and every one of these missions. The partnerships would drive issues
out, and you’d have run-ins, and you’d have to work hard,
and sleepless nights. But in the end, I made lots of fast friends,
both domestically and internationally. I had some funny experiences
dealing with the Russians. I laugh about we used to meet with the
Russians periodically. Man, those people drink vodka like nobody’s
Just something you can’t explain unless you’ve been there,
Right. Just the great people who have come and gone through my career
and contributed so much, each and every one of them. That is, in the
end, what it’s all about.
Would you like to mention one or two that especially have made an
impact on you being able to do what you’ve accomplished?
Clearly, I owe a huge vote of thanks to Shelby Tilford for picking
me to do UARS first, as program manager, when I was just up from the
Center and just learning what it was like in D.C. Having that trust
in me and letting me run that program. Then, he followed that by picking
me to be Flight Program Director when we spun the Earth Science off.
That was another huge vote of confidence on his part in my abilities.
Getting picked for those kinds of roles is a humbling experience sometimes.
I have to say, Ghassem Asrar, for asking me to be his deputy when
he came in. I know, in his case—I don’t know, because
I wasn’t actually part of the conversations, but I had enough
sense to guess strongly that he had to do battle with Dan Goldin to
let him name me in that position, because I think I was perceived
to be somebody Goldin wasn’t particularly fond of because I
was associated with Shelby. But in the end, I think it was sort of
like what Bill said today. I was about the best they could do, so
they didn’t have any choice.
So certainly, from a personal standpoint, those people, and quite
frankly to Ed Weiler for having the confidence to bring me back to
this position. I was in another position under the leadership before
Ed. Ed could have not selected me, nobody would have blinked twice,
to come back and do this. But he did, and I appreciate that very much,
and I’m enjoying it more than I’ve ever enjoyed anything,
I think, working with him in this position. Those are the people that
I personally owe a vote of thanks to.
Along the way, I could only say that I owe a vote of thanks to every
project manager and systems engineer out there who is overseeing the
projects that I’ve been charged with worrying about. They’re
the ones where the rubber meets the road. They’re the ones that
produced it. I've gotten to know a lot of them at different levels.
I think we’ve all gotten along pretty darn well, considering
things. We’ve put together, at the highest level, a pretty nice
system. We got more to come.
That’s good to hear. Well, thank you so much for all of the
great information you shared this afternoon.