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Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton would reinvigorate Earth sciences work at NASA as president, but such a proposal is not without potential pitfalls. (credit: Hillary Clinton for President)

Hillary Clinton’s space policy and the Earth sciences

Hillary Clinton’s principal complaint against the Bush space policy, as evidenced with the release of her own proposed space policy last month, seems to be that it has not been focused enough on this planet. Fair enough, although since the beginning of the space age no administration, including the previous Clinton one, has adequately funded what used to be called “Mission to Planet Earth.” However, this could be said about all of NASA’s missions. Certainly since the last Apollo Moon landing in 1972 the space agency has operated on shoestring budgets, especially when one compares what it is expected to accomplish with the means it is given.

In her October 4, 2007 speech on science policy, she quoted a survey by the National Academy of sciences that stated that “the nation’s Earth observation satellite programs, once the envy of the world, are in disarray.” She added that the “The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has been forced to delay the launch of important climate and weather-monitoring satellites.” She is quite right: NOAA’s National Polar Orbiting Environmental Sensing Satellite (NPOESS) program has been a mess and suffers from serious delays.

In her speech she promised that if elected she will “launch a new, comprehensive space-based study of climate change.” Bravo! The problem is, who will design the parameters of this study?

However, she should be wary of bringing this up, since the NPOESS program was designed by the previous Clinton administration to save money by combining US civil and military weather satellite programs. Many of its sensors used technology at the “bleeding edge” of the state of the art. Repeated efforts by her husband’s administration to force defense and intelligence space programs to justify their existence by showing that they had civilian uses has lead to such travesties as the Forest Service’s wildfire detectors that were once planned for the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared Satellites (SBIRS).

Thousands of scientists and engineers who had staffed the Pentagon’s civilian acquisition work force were let go in 1993 and 1994. These men and women might have been in a position to challenge the promises of the big contractors that they could build these spacecraft on schedule and within budget.

In her speech she promised that if elected she will “launch a new, comprehensive space-based study of climate change.” Bravo! The problem is, who will design the parameters of this study? Who will choose which data sets to acquire and how to correlate them with previous studies? If the answer is Al Gore, James Hansen, and other partisans of the anthropomorphic global warming theory, then the study will be regarded by skeptics as hopelessly compromised. If the same kind of study was designed by Fred Singer and Bjorn Lomborg, Clinton would be among the first to raise questions about its validity.

The sad fact is that since the politics of this debate long ago overwhelmed the science, such a study would be a waste of time unless the program was designed as the end product of a long and stringent series of debates that would probably last at least four years. The problem is that climate change cannot, by its nature, be the subject of a reproducible experiment. We lack a “spare Earth” on which to conduct such an exercise. At best, experts can develop models and conduct campaigns of observation that may or may not produce conclusive evidence.

When a theory that purports to be “scientific” fits exactly in with someone’s political agenda, extreme skepticism is on order. Carl Sagan was supposed to have said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The theories of T.D. Lysenko were driven by Marxism, and the claims of those who see “intelligent design” in the history of the universe are motivated by religion. The decisions on how and what to measure and what technology to use to do so in order to resolve the question of climate change should thus be approached with extreme caution.

The next president is going to be faced with some tough questions in overall space policy. It will be interesting to see what the other candidates chose to emphasize.