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April: Earth Day, April 22, 2012

More than 20 years ago, NASA embarked on an ambitious program of integrated Earth System Science by launching a new field to study our home planet from space as “an inter-related whole, rather than as individual parts.” That decision laid the foundation for much of the understanding we have today of the natural and human-induced changes in the land surface, atmosphere, oceans, biosphere and Earth's interior that affect all aspects of life.

The NASA Oral History Project gathered information from many of those who significantly contributed to this program. They were instrumental in developing the current Earth Observing System suite of satellites, advanced weather computer modeling capabilities, and environmental research impacting the world. Those interviewed include atmospheric physicists, stratospheric scientists, an oceanographer, chemist, ecologist, and renowned climatologists.

In celebration of Earth Day 2012, the JSC History Office commemorates the contributions of some of NASA's Earth System Scientists and invites you to read their transcripts to learn more about their research and contributions to the study of our home planet.


Mark R. Abbott, NASA Headquarters
Interviewed June 22, 2009

A much more comprehensive observing system
Being an ecologist you really saw the need for a really comprehensive set of data: physics, chemistry, and biology. Getting into oceanography you saw the interest for long time series, to look at these, because the ocean operates on these interannual to decadal time scales. I saw that what was going to come out from Earth System Science was really, a much more comprehensive observing system, and something that would be in place for a long time. Essentially indefinitely.

I think when all of us younger folks started with EOS (NASA Earth Observing System) back then, that’s what we saw happening. We assumed that that would be the partnership that would happen, but that the technology and the science would evolve over time. But we also saw the imperative to do it, that it was important to begin to understand how the planet operated as a planet, not just as an object of scientific curiosity but as one of societal importance.

It's a different culture
It’s interesting, when I look back, that what I think I bring to my college was in large part having worked at JPL. You say, “Well, why is that?” Because the NASA Centers involve the scientists in a real—you get hitched up to a program or you don’t succeed. Mine was EOS.

I see this in my colleagues who went through that and have gone on to academe. They bring a different flavor to the academic enterprise that you don’t see in most people who’ve only spent their career in a university. There’s something about having to work in a program and in a project where you understand how to balance science and technology, where you balance cost and schedule and performance, you have to work as a team with a whole range of people. That begins to get you towards that Earth System Science mentality that academe doesn’t necessarily build.

I would like to see more young scientists come into Goddard and Langley and JPL and then go on out into academe to infuse that mindset, because it’s a unique mindset. I don’t know if that’s happening much anymore, but I sure see that with my young faculty who’ve not been to NASA Centers. They just think differently. It’s, “What have you done for my lab lately?” It’s not that they’re selfish, they’re just trying to meet what they think are the promotional goals. If you’ve ever worked in a project, you know you've got to think about that program operating plan and where does your RTOP [Research and Technology Operating Plan] fit within that. It’s a different culture.

Read Mark Abbott's Oral History transcript

Read about other people involved in Earth System Science



Eric J. Barron, Goddard Space Flight Center
Interviewed July 1, 2010

This was really hysterical
The whole notion of plate tectonics had come of age while I was a graduate student. What was going to happen following plate tectonics? Well, my thought was that the ocean and atmospheric circulation would change as the continents moved, and nobody was thinking about that. So I decided I could be a pioneer in that particular area.

I started to take classes that were in climate, and I had a physical oceanography class. I ended up taking a dynamic meteorology class, but I was a geologist. Most geologists don’t take dynamic meteorology class. I put on my committee a physical oceanographer, an atmospheric scientist, and a couple of people who worked in geophysics. The meteorology professor said, “I want you to apply to the National Center for Atmospheric Research [Boulder, Colorado] for a summer fellowship in supercomputing. There’s six of them at NCAR, and you should apply. You spend half the day learning how to use advanced supercomputers, vector-based machines, and you spend half the day working on a scientific problem.”

Well, I thought this was really hysterical in some ways, and truly I rolled my eyes after I left the room, because there was no way a geologist was going to go to the National Center for Atmospheric Research on one of six coveted summer fellowships. But he was on my committee so I applied.

Lo and behold, I get one of these fellowships, and I go to NCAR to spend the summer. The person next to me, who’s now a professor at MIT, was doing this complex simulation of thunderstorm development, and somebody else was doing some simulation efforts of planetary waves. Here was this crazy geologist. I started to work on an ice age atmospheric circulation problem.

I finally got up enough nerve to ask the people in charge of the program, “How is it that I got here? That you decided on a geologist?” My knowledge base was very different. It didn’t match up with everybody else that was there. There was no one at the entire institution paying attention to Earth history.

She told me that Seymour Cray, of Cray Computer Corporation, had given them the six fellowships but had told them that they had to accept one oddball. So for all I know I was the only oddball that even applied and they breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Oh, thank goodness, there’s an oddball we can accept and follow through on this.”

I brought my maps of the way the Earth looked 50 million years ago and 100 million years ago, and I went around the institution showing people those maps, and talking about whether or not we could do a climate simulation for 100 million years ago, 50 million years ago. I found people there like Warren Washington who were very interested in the problem and what it might mean for doing climate simulation. So they invited me back.

This was a crossover between geosciences and atmospheric sciences and ocean sciences, because I couldn’t do my simulations without having this background that crossed three different disciplines.

They invited me back each summer. I worked on my dissertation there. They gave me a postdoc, and they gave me a job as a Scientist I and then a Scientist II. Wonderful institution that provided great opportunity, changed my life.

A long-term, robust, continuous, consistent effort
When I was Director of the Earth System Science Center, I wrote a proposal and became PI on one of the interdisciplinary programs for the Earth Observing System [EOS]. The one that I worked on, I think it was called climate and hydrology, but I was on this working group. Then I got elected as the chair of the Science Executive Committee for EOS, and I held that position for quite a while. So whenever we were having a discussion about the Earth Observing System, almost all of the scientific questions and how they matched up with instruments and launch schedules came to the Science Executive Committee. Most people don’t realize that every six weeks we met in the Chicago airport from all across the country and I was chairing these meetings, so that was truly interesting.

I was coming at the NASA issues from a viewpoint of being involved in the National Academy committees because I was chair of those sets of committees for a string of about 13 years, different committees, different terms, what they called ESSAAC, [Earth System Science and Applications Advisory Committee], the advisory committee, and the Science Executive Committee for EOS. I would say that this is a period for which what was going on at NASA was under constant review, and constantly changing parameters. We began with a vision where there’s one rocket sent up into space and we needed to design many instruments to fit on it.

The reason why we focused on a mega constellation was because we were taking advantage of the launch vehicle, and because we wanted to measure things simultaneously. We also planned on making copies one right after another, so that we would have a continuity of measurement in five year increments, always eyes in space looking back at the Earth for all the things you want to measure - a long-term, robust, continuous, consistent effort.

Read Eric Barron's Oral History transcript

Read about other people involved in Earth System Science



Dixon M. Butler, Johnson Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Headquarters
Interviewed June 25, 2009, March 26, 2010, June 3, 2010

That really sets an ideal
The only time in my experience at NASA Headquarters when a new start presentation on a science mission to the Administrator was not done by the program scientist, was TOPEX/Poseidon. As the engineer, Bill Townsend knew the science well enough that he could stand up and defend that to the Administrator and did the briefing for its 1982 new start. Impressive.

I always liked Bill, I still do. My hat remains off to him for that, but that really sets an ideal. If you can be a program manager at NASA Headquarters and understand the science of what you’re trying to achieve well enough—not that you’re a scientist, but that you understand their requirements so well that you can actually articulate them and make a public case for them, that’s pretty good. You've got to understand all the hardware stuff, but that’s just pretty amazing.

What a sadness
Now to come to the EOS more particularly. We kept meeting, we had all these instrument panels. The instrument panels would report into the overall Science and Mission Requirements Working Group. It was an amazingly heady time. As I said before, we had so many people working on it. Again, we were shooting for a 1988 new start and a 1992 launch.

Then, as I was sitting at NASA Headquarters on the seventh floor of the old building in a meeting with NOAA, the [Space Shuttle] Challenger [STS 5l-L] accident happened. God. Somebody just stuck their head in the meeting room door and said the Challenger has blown up. I kept talking, because it just was such a bolt out of the blue that my mind just couldn’t even internalize it and my mouth just kept running. After about 45 seconds I realized, “Oh my God.” The NOAA guys quietly looked at one another and—it’s kind of a death in the family. They got out because they weren’t NASA. What a sadness.

I like to say I didn’t have a gray hair in my beard until—and six months later there was gray all over my beard because what this did to the Earth Observing System. We had a sense of imperative, because we could see that environmental change was happening, and we knew we needed to go understand it better, and we knew we needed to get our hands around it, and we knew that eventually people were going to need to make informed policy decisions based on what we were doing. People in the Earth Observing System, on all our working groups, all the people at NASA—we woke up and knew we were engaged in trying to save the Earth. It’s a little bit of hubris, but it was very motivated. It provided a really nice selfless arc.

What are you here to accomplish?
I hope to keep making a contribution. That’s what I’m here to do. If I don’t have a contribution to make, then hopefully I’ll have the wisdom to go do something else or go watch other people do it. And it’s really nice. The Capitol Hill jobs are less demanding than the job was at my most intense periods at NASA Headquarters. I don’t wake up in the morning saying I’m off to be the wizard anymore, but there are times when we’re staffing the movement, the conferencing of an appropriations bill—which is my favorite time, because that’s when it becomes real—when we are pushing an agency to do better, when we are able to inspire, when we are able to empower—and by we I mean people like me staffing the elected representatives and pushing the executive branch to green-light the good stuff—to empower people to do the kinds of things that I got to do at NASA, that Shelby Tilford got to do at NASA, that Bob Watson got to do at NASA and OSTP and the World Bank, and person after person has gotten to do—it’s quite something.

The fact that it isn’t quite that wonderful every single day is okay. It’s just a package, and it’s not a bad package. It’s a package I’m very happy to do. The odd thing is I’m willing to say I’m happier having my job than almost any of my colleagues are.

Scott Lilly, when I was interviewing to be a congressional science fellow in Mr. Obey’s office, said, “What are you here to accomplish?”

I said, “I’m here to learn.” At that time that’s why I was there. I didn’t understand the process, I didn’t know how power worked, I still probably to some extent don’t. But I was there to learn, which is then a knowledge that empowers you. When people ask me that today of course I have good answers, and when people asked me that once the EOS vision was there, when people asked me at NASA—I knew what I was there to do. When I was at GLOBE I knew what I was there to do. On the Hill both in Energy and Water and now in Commerce, Justice, Science I know what I’m there to do. That’s really a good thing.

Read Dixon Butler's Oral History transcripts

Read about other people involved in Earth System Science


Jack A. Kaye, Johnson Space Center, NASA Headquarters
Interviewed June 24, 2009

I’ll think about it in terms of the big picture
For me, chemistry’s a pretty obvious entrée into that world [of looking at the Earth as an entire system] because you can think at the molecular level, and a lot of the things that are of interest really involve chemical reactions that release and take up your trace gases, whether it’s how do things get into the atmosphere from the Earth’s surface; how do things get from the Earth’s atmosphere back into the surface; how are things transformed; how do things change phase? So those are all, in some sense, chemical questions.

Then also, since a lot of what we do at NASA is remote sensing; you could look at it as applied spectroscopy, which is also chemical. That’s still a yardstick that I bring to it, since I have really no formal training in disciplines like meteorology or oceanography or geology or anything else. So I tend to default to thinking at a molecular level, but I’ll think about it in terms of the big picture.

I think that for a long time, we’ve all sort of realized that a fairly holistic view is important because there are interdisciplinary aspects to things, and one needs to look at it. I think we also recognized, especially at NASA, but not exclusively at NASA, that you have to think in terms of the whole planet. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to really look regionally, and you can only go so far if you look in terms of kind of a disciplinary isolation, because so many things are connected to each other from the point of view of science.

Of course, the Earth, you’ve got people as well, so when you actually think about Earth System Science, it’s not just a traditional natural science or physical and biological science, but people can have an impact on a regional scale and planetary scale, and one actually has to ultimately recognize the roles of people and the roles that societies play in making decisions.

Building interdisciplinary teams
One of the things that I think NASA was very good about was building interdisciplinary teams. When I got to Goddard and worked in the branch, I was a chemist; there were probably mainly physicists, not that many meteorologists. But I think that there were a few things that we used to say. “Why do you have a government laboratory?” Well, one of the things is you do things that it’s hard to do in an academic environment, and one of which, at the time I think, was to bring together interdisciplinary teams in ways that might be difficult to sustain in an academic environment.

Because I think at the time, my sense is that the universities were a little bit more stove-piped. That the oceanographers didn’t necessarily talk to the meteorologists, and within meteorology, the people who were more chemically oriented, they probably weren’t even in the meteorology departments at the time; they would have been maybe in chemistry departments or some other places. So you had less of that at some other places.

But I think at NASA, we were always more receptive to that. It took some time, but I think we probably did a better job than most at a fairly early stage in facilitating that. Of course, I think NASA as an organization, especially if you go out a few years, then really pushed that sort of broader Earth System Science view when others were not doing that so much.

There are major decisions that have to be made
From a planetary perspective, there are major decisions that have to be made about energy, environment, population, development. They all kind of come together. The use of resources and the decisions that we defer will likely create problems. From the point of view of NASA, we can sort of stand back a little bit and say, “It’s not our job to make these decisions. We’re not a policymaking organization; we don’t regulate; we don’t have management responsibilities. But we provide information, and we can inform.” So that’s our role, and in terms of what should governments do about energy and environment, development, population, sustainability—that’s in some sense probably a separate conversation.

I think part of my passion is to make sure that we do the best job that we can to provide good information. I do feel that one of the things that we do is this issue of equivalent quality information anywhere in the world. Other agencies have more of a domestic focus, but by definition, most of what we do is global, and it’s likely to remain that way. From the point of view of what we do, the fact that we have as good knowledge over the most remote parts of the planet as we do right here at home, that’s significant.

Read Jack Kaye's Oral History transcript

Read about other people involved in Earth System Science


Michael R. Luther, Langley Research Center, NASA Headquarters
Interviewed June 22, 2009

He had the audacity to say yes

About the time ERBS [Earth Radiation Budget Satellite] was ramping down, I came here to NASA Headquarters, 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 Tilford, 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.

Welcome to the beginnings of Mission to Planet Earth
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.


It's just the human spirit
First and foremost, it’s the sheer dedication of the literally thousands of individual people that are engaged in this enterprise [that propels it forward]. 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.

Read Michael Luther's Oral History transcript

Read about other people involved in Earth System Science


Berrien Moore, NASA Advisory Council
Interviewed April 4, 2011

What if that seat hadn’t have been there?
I’m a great believer in fortune or luck, and I think I can trace it to one day in the spring of 1976. I had several things happen in my life. One, I had a Fulbright Award and I was headed to Romania to continue my work in mathematics. We had our child; our daughter was born in February of ’76. I was in California lecturing in mathematics when I got a phone call from the University of New Hampshire, and they asked me to go down to a marine science meeting at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

I was at the University of California, Berkeley, and probably in classical New Hampshire fashion of “Live free or die,” I was already on the West Coast and therefore it was cheaper for me to go down there and put in an appearance. It was, as I recall, March timeframe, and I arrived a little bit late. It was an auditorium filled with people, and I looked around and there was just one seat that I could identify, and so I slipped into that seat.

After a while, I had no idea what they were talking about. They were talking about something in oceanography, and I turned to the guy next to me, we just chatted, and I said, “Are you following a lot of this?”

He said, “Well, yes,” it was something he knew about. He asked what I was doing there, and I told him I was just covering for the university. I thought it was interesting, but I didn’t really understand very much of it. He said, “Where are you?”

I said, “University of New Hampshire.”

He said, “Well, I’ve just moved to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.”

I said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” We talked some more, and I told him I had this Fulbright to go to Romania, but I just wasn’t sure I wanted to do it; I was becoming increasingly interested in applied mathematical topics.

He said, “If you ever want to hang out in Woods Hole, I’m sure I could get you comparable to the Fulbright. You could spend a year in Woods Hole on your sabbatical.” That person was Bob Frosch.

After getting back to New Hampshire and thinking about it some more, I thought, “I think I’m going to do something different. I feel guilty taking the Fulbright because I’m not really as interested in the mathematics as I once was.” I had become very interested in environmental issues and Earth science issues.

So that fall we go to Woods Hole and Jimmy Carter’selected president, and in 1977 in April he nominates Bob Frosch to be the NASA Administrator. By that time, I’d become friends with Bob, and he said, “Well, I convinced you to come down to Woods Hole. Maybe you can come down and spend some time at NASA every once in a while. After all, they do Earth science.”

I said, “Oh, really?” That was the beginning, and I’ve thought to myself a number of times since then, what if that seat hadn’t have been there? But it was, and so that’s where it all began.

The Bretherton Diagram began in the Snow Bunny Lodge
I think the most interesting aspect of that whole period was when we came up with what was called the Bretherton Diagram, even though Francis [Bretherton] didn’t have anything to do with it. John Dutton and I were chairing a meeting of the Modeling Team. John Dutton and I shared an interest in addition to modeling the Earth, which was skiing. So we decided to host this meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Our idea was we’d get up early in the morning and work early from, say, seven o’clock in the morning through breakfast up to noon, and then we’d ski in the afternoons, and then at five or six o’clock we’d come back and work up until maybe eight or nine, eleven o’clock at night. That way, we’d put in more than a full day’s work, and we’d get an afternoon off to ski.

It turned out we really made good progress that way. We were working with the beginnings of the outline of this diagram that describes how all the pieces of the planet work. The top half of the diagram was biogeochemical cycles, the bottom half was the physical system, and partly what linked the two was the hydrologic cycle. We were working on this evolving diagram, and we were using an overhead projector—this was way before PowerPoint—and we were shining the overhead projector on the wall of the room that we were working in at the hotel.

The name of the hotel was the Snow Bunny Lodge. It had already caused JPL a little heartburn to have this meeting at the Snow Bunny Lodge, but what really was going to cause them heartburn is what happened.

John Steele, who was then the director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was standing beside the overhead projector adding some equations. John also is a mathematical ecologist. This is one of those things where you saw an accident about to happen, and you just froze, you didn’t say anything.

John was writing these equations on the transparency paper, and he stepped back and he started looking at it. He saw a mistake in his equation, and rather than walk to the projector, he just forgot what he was doing and he walked to the wall and rewrote the equation on the wall with permanent Magic Marker. So now we’re standing in the Snow Bunny Lodge and we have to pay to have the wall painted. I remember John Dutton and I saying, “Do you think we could slip this past JPL?”

The Bretherton Diagram began in the Snow Bunny Lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Francis was not there, but Iím happy that itís called the Bretherton Diagram, because Francis is a great scientist. We began at that meeting to describe exactly how we saw the Earth worked. Now when you look at it, it looks very primitive, but it was the first time we actually really tried to write down basic equations, looking at the physical system, you might say the climatological system, and then at the biogeochemical part, and then the feedbacks between the tip of the water.

Read Berrien Moore's Oral History transcript

Read about other people involved in Earth System Science


Claire L. Parkinson, Goddard Space Flight Center
Interviewed June 26, 2008 and June 1, 2009

We came in peace for all mankind
My interest as a young child was math. I was totally enthralled by what you could do through the use of symbols, i.e., that math allows you to do so much with so little. Math just enthralled me and that was overwhelmingly my prime interest. So naturally I majored in math in college.

However, this was in the late 1960s; the Vietnam War was going on, and civil rights were clearly not what they should be in this country at that time. There were a lot of issues that made me question how I could go into a career that is entirely theoretically oriented when so much that I opposed was going on in the world, and so that's why when I graduated from college, which was in 1970, I decided that much as I love math, I really couldn’t stay in it as my career. And that's when I decided I would switch to science, and in particular, climate issues.

On the positive side, one event in the '60s stood out hugely in my mind, and that was the first landing on the Moon in July of 1969. That landing on the Moon, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin put down the plaque from NASA that said: "Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind." That struck me so much, "We came in peace for all mankind." More than any other event in the '60s, that made me feel proud to be an American. That was the culmination of an amazing string of inspiring NASA accomplishments in the ‘60s, all of which made me always feel really, really positively about NASA.

Definitely an adventure
It was a NASA expedition to Resolute Bay and the North Pole. Resolute Bay is a small Inuit community in northern Canada. The main purpose was the North Pole, but Resolute Bay is where we tested out all our equipment and we did some webcasts. We had a telephone link from the North Pole to the South Pole while we were there, which is the first time that had ever been done, so that was exciting, to record a communication ‘first.’

We got to the North Pole, and we got there largely by airplane. But it's floating ice at the North Pole. It's sea ice; it's not grounded ice, it's floating. So if you're going by airplane, you can't necessarily know that there's going to be a big enough floe to land right at the North Pole. We had this all planned out, because we wanted to get to the exact point of the North Pole, and so we hooked up with a dogsled team, because a dogsled can much more reliably get you right to the exact North Pole, whereas with a plane, you might/might not be able to get there. So we took the plane most of the way, and then the last couple of miles it was by dogsled, with this dogsled team. That was neat to get to the North Pole by dogsled.

We did ice thickness measurements at the North Pole. That was a main purpose, to get some ice thickness measurements. And indeed, the ice was reasonably thick; it wasn't as thin as what some people were fearing. On the other hand, if you're just making measurements for a day or so, the next day it could be a bigger or smaller floe that's there, because these floes are always moving around. So you really need many more measurements for any climate change studies. But we were doing ground truth for the satellites. As we flew most of the way, we were looking at the ice cover so that we could compare it with the satellite images, and they were comparing well. The purpose was partly the ground truth, but also was the outreach effort of doing the webcasts from the North Pole. It was definitely, definitely an adventure.

No polar bear would have to be worried about me
Even the plane ride to the North Pole was so different than normal plane rides. It was naturally a very small plane, but that wasn’t a main difference; the main differences related more to security and weight. On normal plane rides, everyone has to go through security. Well, on this plane ride to the North Pole, you're expected to have rifles with you because of the possibility of encountering a polar bear—in fact, we had to take rifle training, which in my case meant one shot. Certainly, rifle training was not on my list of priorities; but we were told we had to take rifle training. So I shot this rifle once, and that was it. No polar bear would have to be worried about me, that's for sure, in terms of my rifle.

Anyway, you had to have rifles, and so therefore you certainly don't have any security checks when you get on the plane. But what you do have to do is, you have to take yourself and all your luggage and get weighed, yourself and your luggage. There's this big platform that you stand on with your luggage and get weighed, because the critical thing is to make sure the weight's not too much, make sure that you're going to be able not just to land safely but also to take off safely from the sea ice floe.

We were jammed into this plane; it was sitting-on-top-of-luggage type jamming in. It was jammed. But we had to satisfy the weight requirement. In fact, the weight requirement was such that the plane wasn’t able to carry enough fuel on board to get us all the way to the North Pole. We went from Eureka, which is on Ellesmere Island, which is far north in Canada. We went from a little airport on Eureka headed to the North Pole. But we couldn’t carry enough fuel on board to get all the way to the North Pole and still take ourselves and our luggage.

The day before we left Eureka, the pilots had to fly halfway with extra fuel and drop the extra fuel in a fuel cache. They just put the fuel on an ice floe and then marked the ice floe in bright orange so we'd be able to find it, then came back. So when we flew the next day, we flew halfway and then searched around. They find the ice floe that's got the fuel cache. We land on that ice floe and dump our empty fuel bins and put the full ones on. It is different; getting to the North Pole is very different than a normal plane flight.

Read Claire Parkinson's Oral History transcripts

Read about other people involved in Earth System Science


Byron D. Tapley, University of Texas, Center for Space Research
Interviewed January 12, 2010

It was a big change
My introduction into the space research field came as Sputnik was launched. I had just finished my academic work, accepted an appointment at the University of Texas in the field of Engineering Mechanics, after performing my doctoral research on the plastic deformations of materials under high strain rates.

When the Sputnik was launched, the university decided that it would be appropriate to introduce a space-related course in aerospace engineering. I was approached by the Chair of the Aeronautics Department about teaching the course. I decided that, if I were going to make this change, I wanted to develop a complete program, rather than just one course.

The university agreed that I would develop a program in the field of astrodynamics, as a part of what became the aerospace engineering department. It was a big change to leave an active and mature program of research to initiate a program with a clean sheet of paper. This proved to be a very big challenge. There was no academic capability on campus. No curricula and no students at that point, and actually no one to have an intellectual discussion about space issues.

There was considerable interest and excitement in the student body and after a couple years the first set of Ph.D. candidates began to mature and the program began to take on a life of its own, and a number of leading engineers and scientists at various NASA and other government centers, academic institutions and space related industrial firms passed through the academic program on the way to their numerous accomplishments.

A very important piece of the puzzle
In the GRACE proposal we described an interdisciplinary climate-related mission. The name GRACE is an acronym for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment. We actually proposed several paradigm shifting climate related measurements for the GRACE mission. The ability to infer mass change below the Earth’s surface was a paradigm shifting capability that had not been provided by any other mission.

In response to the interdisciplinary related capabilities, the mass flux measurement concept evolved from an extension of a program initiated under the Earth Observation System, the EOS program. I led an interdisciplinary EOS science investigation proposal, which was selected to look at the integration of data from the EOS measurement suite with the objective of focusing on the Earth system dynamics. I proposed an investigation that would study a number of the topics that GRACE is addressing.

The EOS implementation was delayed and the data needed to accomplish the investigations was never provided, but we did perform a number of simulated investigations and we did use the time variable gravity measurements observed by the LAGEOS satellites to begin initial studies that were very beneficial to the GRACE mission. We actually understood a lot of the inter-disciplinary applications that GRACE addressed when we proposed the GRACE mission. In the GRACE proposal, we outlined contributions to oceanography, hydrology, cryology and contributions to geophysics. We also proposed some paradigm shifting measurements, such as inferring the deep ocean currents and the change in underground continental aquifers.

The GRACE measurement component was viewed as an essential augmentation to other measurements and, without GRACE, an important part of the overall puzzle would not be measured. So in the initial context, GRACE was always viewed as having a strong interdisciplinary thrust in the Earth System Science context. Early on in the GRACE mission, we argued that GRACE is an essential member of the satellite suite that NASA provides to observe the Earth’s dynamic system. In all of the base objectives of the Earth science program, there is a place where the mass and the mass flux provided by GRACE are essential to the scientific interpretation. The mass flux taken by itself usually won’t solve the problems, but it is a very important piece of the puzzle. You usually can’t solve the problem without understanding the associated mass and mass flux.

So the measurement of gravity has evolved from what was viewed in a fairly narrow context as a geodetic measurement, the mean gravity (or static) gravity field, into one that’s really central to in the climate change considerations. It is being recognized as one of the significant climate parameters that we should to be measuring.

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Shelby G. Tilford, NASA Headquarters
Interviewed June 23 and 24, 2009

Is it a big problem?
[At the time, I was in my] late 30s, and [I had been] a scientist my entire career, and if I ever want to do something different, this seemed like the right time to try it. The solar physics program managers at NASA wanted a detailee to come down for a year. They didn’t have any permanent positions, but they needed help in solar physics. They were just getting ready to select the instruments for the Solar Max Mission. I didn’t want to go for an entire year, so I talked another scientist at NRL [Naval Research Laboratory] into sharing the detaileeship with me. He went for the first six months, then I arrived at NASA Headquarters in January of 1976.

During that six months, the NASA officials talked me into staying in the solar physics program at NASA, but that was interrupted a few months after I had agreed to accept the position. That’s when NASA was assigned the responsibility for trying to understand the ozone issue, and the Upper Atmospheric Research Program was established. They wanted someone who knew a little bit about the atmosphere.

Well, I didn’t know much of anything about how the atmosphere behaved on a global basis, but I knew quite a bit about what was in it, so they said, “Why don’t you come over to this new program?” I did, and it was fascinating.

All of the controversy at that time was about ozone depletion, and were CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] responsible. The reason that NASA ultimately got the responsibility was because NASA was working on the potential environmental effects of the Space Shuttle whose exhausts contained chlorine and depleted ozone. They wanted to understand what the affect of these missions would be on the atmosphere. How detrimental was it? Is it a big problem? Is it permanent? Is it this? Is it that?

It’s trying to learn what’s important and what isn’t
Climate change is something we are just beginning to understand. I just saw the first ten year data set from TOPEX/Poseidon, which is the altimeter. They saw some truly unusual anomalies in the ocean. The biggest one that ever happened, they recorded altimetry data from it, watching the warm water rush up against the coast of South America and then turn back.

You remember the El Niño they talked about so much? And then La Niña? One of them is when you get cold water in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, and one of them is when you get warm water in the Eastern Pacific. Because it affects the whole ocean circulation, it in turn affects the total rainfall pattern over the whole world. These are things that we did not know twenty years ago.

We know a little bit, now, but what we need is enough of a data set to say, “Okay, where are the drivers?” We know the sun is a driver. It’s the biggest driver. But what are the other drivers in the climate system? CO2, that’s a driver, because we’re changing its concentration, and it does trap Infrared radiation into the Earth’s atmosphere, thus heating up the Earth’s temperature.

We don’t know what the ocean circulation is. Ice melt in the last three years has been phenomenal. We’ve melted more ice in the ocean, which is a lot of water, in the last three years than we probably have in the last one hundred years. These are all things we don’t know about. These are all things we can measure now. That was our objective, to go measure it, and then let people analyze it. That was the whole objective. Go measure things we don’t know about on a global scale and determine what’s important and what isn’t. When we find out what’s important, we’ll try to measure it on a continuous basis, but we won’t continue measuring some of the other things which aren’t important.

It’s trying to learn what’s important and what isn’t. Then we want to incorporate these findings and changes into improved model predictions that will help us predict and plan for the future—water resources, food production, ocean level changes, deforestation, energy production, flood protection, transportation improvements, etc.. These goals are what Bretherton and his colleagues proposed in the Bretherton Report, and this is what we set out to achieve with EOS and EOSDIS.

I think on the 20th anniversary of EOS, from what I have heard in terms of accomplishments, the EOS program has made great progress.

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Diane E. Wickland, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA Headquarters
Interviewed March 26, 2010

Global ecosystems
I had not done any remote sensing-related research in my training, so getting into remote sensing was a new aspect for me. Talking to Barry Rock initially, and colleagues of his at JPL later on, it just seemed like wow, you can look at ecosystems from larger scales, larger perspectives. You can do regional and continental studies, and also some of the new remote sensing technologies that were allowing you to do more than just identify a vegetation type. You might be able to say something about its chemical composition, or, in my initial areas of interest, stress. That was all pretty exciting, and it seemed like it might be a good career move and an opportunity.

At that time there weren’t very many ecologists at NASA, either at the Centers or certainly at Headquarters, so that was also an interesting thing—an opportunity to have an impact, pulling two different things together. That’s how I got started.

The program I manage, the scientists I interact with, the research directions we’ve defined are all still pretty much relevant to that broader set of issues, global ecosystems, how they’re changing, how they respond to change, what aspects of these systems can you measure from space. That’s what the program does. I’ve pretty much stayed engaged in the things that I’ve been interested in, but it scaled up rather fast both in the scale that remote sensing can address and my span of influence as a manager as opposed to a scientist.

What are the implications?
I think there was a growing recognition that probably got spawned by the environmental movement and Earth Day, that we’re changing our planet in bigger ways than one could have imagined people were able, and what are the implications of that? I think that was a key element to nonscientists, and even scientists, but nonscientists buying into the fact that we really needed an integrated program to study the Earth system. That if you have concerns about it changing, maybe you’d better learn as much as you can.

I think that was a pretty key ingredient. It was probably also important to keep it very scientifically focused, as opposed to focused on solving those environmental problems, because you can take the high road with science and avoid some of the political quagmire that follows when people care passionately and differently about environmental issues. Avoiding some of that, not all of that but some of it, was helpful. Keeping it scientifically focused, I think, was good for the politics, as well as good for bringing on the international community. Recognizing that the Earth is changing, I think, was a key ingredient for keeping the importance of it front and center.

We’ve provided all that context
I think the biggest impact is that we documented significant changes occurring on this planet that are not natural system variability or natural system change. They’re things that people did and are doing to the planet. We’ve observed it. We’ve quantified it. We’ve demonstrated trends, changes in rates, acceleration of certain phenomena. We’ve actually documented that.

Back at the beginning we had the sense that things were being changed and there were impacts, but we really didn’t know how large, how important, or what the implications were for the future. Now of course, by documenting the scale and scope and nature of some of these changes, we have a better sense of their implications. Of course we’ve also been developing the models, and have been attempting to make predictions or develop scenarios that could give us some sense of what the future would be. We’ve provided all that context.

This program, Earth System Science, the whole national and international effort—this program documented it and quantified it in so many different ways. It’s truly remarkable. All by itself, just the fact that we now have the knowledge, and we have a better sense of the implications, I can’t think of anything else that would be more important than that.

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