Science and Exploration

Presentation to the National Space Council Users’ Advisory Group by Thomas Zurbuchen

By Keith Cowing
Status Report
Thomas Zurbuchen
February 23, 2023
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Presentation to the National Space Council Users’ Advisory Group by Thomas Zurbuchen
Presentation to the National Space Council Users’ Advisory Group by Thomas Zurbuchen

Dear members of the Space Council User’s Advisory Group, dear guests.

The context of my comments should be clear to all of you: Through 2022, I have had the honor of running the world’s leading program doing science in and from space at NASA. I think anyone would be hard-pressed to find a time period in history that had more transformative and history making successes than these past six years. We launched 37 space-missions and started over 55 new ones, many of them with novel commercial and international partnerships.

Let’s just quickly review what was in the news last week:

We celebrated the two-year landing of the Perseverance rover last week. Since its landing, three important goals were already achieved: the team has achieved minimum science goals and have deposited a curated sample on the surface of Mars, a sample ready to be returned to Earth. The advanced and unprecedented instrumentation has told us the story of Jezero crater that tells us that it was worth taking the extra risk – the crater used to be a lake billions of years ago, one that underwent violent flood, but the environment of which was also shaped by volcanic activities. And finally, we have demonstrated new technologies that advance our portfolio of what we can do going forward and further crack open the door to human exploration on Mars. Explores can now land using proven terrain relative navigation technology, they can breathe oxygen that has been produced using a technology by the MOXIE instrument on Perseverance from the CO2 of the Mars atmosphere. And, the explorers can have their personal support and communications drones, in part based on the technology of Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter.

This last week, a new deep field of the James Webb Space Telescope also came out and it reminds us of the transformative power of that telescope that is now observing the universe about 1 million miles away from us. Very few times, NASA has created a historic leap of our understanding of the universe, one that stands in line with few, starting with Galileo from 1609. I always imagined how he felt when on January 7 in 1610 he noted that Jupiter had in fact celestial neighbors, moons like the Earth. I think I understand that better now – when I saw the first deep field image, a few days before President Biden released it to the public. The universe is unspeakably beautiful, and it makes itself known those teams who undertake the hard and treacherous work to in fact tackle that boundary that separates the known from the unknown.

I am told the American Astronomical Society meeting this January in Seattle was buzzing with excitement and there is about one publication written per day already discussing new discoveries. I am sure, this number will triple or more over time. This is where Hubble is even now.

Last week also, the increasingly active Sun was firing another few shots into space. The X-class flare observes at the Sun is at the root of a major ejection that propels solar plasma and magnetic field space. When such ejections interact with the Earth, a firework ensues especially seen in form of Northern and Southern lights as high energy particles are accelerated in the magnetic bubble that surrounds the Earth, the magnetosphere, and are raining down onto the atmosphere, where they collide with atoms and shine like slow moving curtains. I used to have a great space weather sensor – my NASA email: every time, a big space storm hit, emails talking about the health of the 80+ missions currently in orbit started trickling in. Space weather, although beautiful is also a menace to our technological society that depends on space. And NASA is working with NOAA to help government and commercial providers during this time of increasingly active Sun. Yes, it will get worse before it gets better again.

These three images remind us of first purpose statement of NASA in the Space Act of 1958 is “the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and in space.” Over the years, NASA’s Science program by far out-performs any science and exploration program in terms of its coverage and human interest. NASA’s Science program is the envy in terms of viewers, followers, and fans. The second largest social media account besides NASA is Hubble. And the largest two TV shows in terms of viewers during the last three years were the Perseverance lander and the DART impact. And, the program with the largest engagement during the past 6 years was the 2017 big American eclipse – I trust NASA will do it again in 2024 and 2025 at the ring and full eclipse over the US, respectively. Our commercial partners tell us that they are using science missions to recruit engineers and managers who might up working on programs elsewhere. In summary, the science programs are not only important because of the history they achieve, but also because of the leadership it projects, leadership that is noticed both by friends and those who do not mean well for the United States of America.

You asked me to talk about the issues that should be at the forefront issues in science. According to your agenda, I want to focus on two topics, approximately aligned with your subcommittees.

The first relates to Climate Science and Societal benefits.

NASA is the pivotal leader and partner in civil space as it comes to our understanding of changes to our planet and how it affects us. NOAA partners with NASA to build operational and space-based weather and space weather forecasting observatories and these improvements have been evident in all key metrics related to forecasting during the past 10 years or so. 1 day weather forecasts in many ways are as good as better than 2 day forecasts were 10-15 years ago. The USGS partners with NASA for the construction of the most powerful data-set of our Earth assembled in civil space – the Landsat data. We just celebrated the 50 year anniversary of that.

Right now, NASA is in process to launching about a dozen Earth science focused spacecraft both with other government agencies, but also critical partnerships with international partners, such as India, France, and the European Space Agency.

Consider the recent announcement of the NISAR mission. This first big international collaboration is pioneering in at least three ways. First, it is the first large-scale partnership with India, one of many. As the US worries about areas of the world regarding peace and stability, international partnerships take a front-seat. And, that is especially true with new partnerships with India, Japan, and South Korea. Second, the mission was built from the get-go with applications in mind. Whether it is ice-cover, floods, or earth slides, the application communities are already working. And finally, due to its open data and open science approach, this vast amount of data – the largest ever from a NASA mission – will be made public quickly for the benefit of society.

These are the principles of all the elements of the Earth System Observatory. This mission of missions aspires to look at our planet in new ways, as it is rapidly changing and threats to people and property are moving. These measurements proposed by the National Academies work together and seek to teach us about our planet, but also provide data that is truly actionable.

Consider the water situation out west. For water managers to plan another summer ahead, two things matter: how much water is in reservoirs. This year is very good for that – the snow fall in the Rockies has been record-breaking. However, water also as a ground component, that can also be measured using a high-tech 2-spacecraft mission called GRACE-Follow On. The ground component has been depleted over the last years and the snow and rain surely helps, but we need to quantify how much.

The advent of commercial data sets is also critical when it comes to value to society. I was so grateful for the various companies, such as MAXAR and Planet when they provided publicly available images of the aggression of Russia against Ukraine. These images are also critical when it comes to disasters and the path forward. Here is a picture of the aftermath of Hurricane Ian with visible flows of organic and debris out of Charlotte Harbor and through Gasparilla Sound into the Gulf of Mexico. I was very excited at NASA to build a leading program of US government commercial data buys of such data and make them available to the public. I applaud planet and companies like them for imaging the Earth in a new way and what is happening now is that some of the most advanced climate models are getting a boost using these regional and local data. See, like politics, all important climate change is local.

But, despite all this progress, NASA’s Earth Science program has struggled. First and foremost, NASA Earth Science is the agency tasked with innovation in civil space and needs to continue to do that. And, the strategy is in trouble for a variety of reasons provided here. The program did not get the support they need.

And on the other hand, the Earth Science community is at times shackling itself with golden shackles of academia. I know the next generation gets this: Earth data that is life-changing needs to be made useful, urgently.

Further, the emergence of commercial and government players that are often tussling with each other more than they should and celebrating fake victories against each other. Yet, we need new approaches that we have not used prior, approaches that are shortening the time between discovery and utility, and are further shortening the time from ideation to measurements in and from space. If climate changes significantly on a time-scale of ten years, we cannot take ten years to put an idea into flight.

Finally, NASA has struggled in multiple occasions to implement that task because of leaders on the executive side of the government being worried about bad news that come from good management or on the legislative side because a well-meaning elected official is stopping accountability where it is needed.

That has come to the forefront of my thinking when I read a publication about climate tipping point that was published in 2022 in the journal Science. Climate tipping points are conditions beyond which changes in a part of the climate system become self-perpetuating. These changes may lead to abrupt, irreversible, and dangerous impacts with serious implications for humanity. The authors argue that there are nine global tipping points that will affect us globally, and they are providing both observational evidence and modeling to support that view.

Here is what bothers me about this: six years ago, there was no scientific consensus about the existence of tipping points in the climate system. Now, new results make us seriously consider whether we should change entirely how we do research in that system. The open environment of research and analysis may be too slow and instead we need to use methodologies more akin to the Manhattan project.

Besides the necessity of doing these critical measurements from space, it is also critical to develop the systems faster and deploy them more quickly. The insights from our research assets and modeling need to translate to benefit US citizens and people around the word. So often, these translational processes are ten years or longer. NASA Earth Science is changing its structure to make learning from the user community and translation a much higher priority than it has.

The second relates, in part, to exploration and discovery, and to new technologies.

As mentioned previously, we have had one of the most successful times of NASA’s Robotic and Space community. Whether it is exploring the deep universe, our planetary neighborhood, space weather effects today and over time, or studying fundamental processes in space the domains of physical and biological sciences.

NASA’s exploration strategy is a leadership strategy for all these domains and the National Academies input in form of decadal reviews allows us to prioritize science, and to build programs with the right balance between big and small, between investments in technology and missions. Alignment between stakeholders, and especially a science-focus on Artemis to maximize science return is critical as we go forward. The science community is excited about Moon and Mars like never before, and together with our friends in Human Exploration, we have made big strides. And that needs to be continued – exploring the Moon and Mars is not about flags and footprints, but about inspiration, science, and expanding our economic sphere. Human explorers need to become the best advocates for science, and Scientists need to learn how to do science in space like here on Earth – every expedition has humans in them.

The next few years are going to be exciting and scary at the same time. I remember well how much I worried in 2016 and 2017, especially when I got a sense of the difficulties, we were facing with both Mars2020/Perseverance and James Webb Space Telescope. Life would be a lot easier to not do these big and challenging missions, but that would mean that we cede leadership to others.

The next few years are the years of Europa Clipper, The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, and Mars Sample Return, all highest priority recommendations of the US National Academies. Clipper will assess whether Europa is an environment where life can arise. Roman will look at the Universe with the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope, but 200 times faster, therefore covering much of it. And, Mars Sample Return will be humanity’s first return-trip to another planet. Note, that all these missions have international competitors, but all of them are on track to continue and build out leadership. Make no mistake, these are all very difficult missions, and we have learned that NASA and in fact our suppliers are not as strong as we used to be prior to 2020 when COVID struck. The efficiency of much of the Space Community is still not back to pre-Covid times due to work-modalities that do not work as they should. But, progress and success is crucial “at the full speed of freedom”, as Kennedy coined it.

That is also true for the first three Commercial partners who will seek to land on the Moon this year. It is time for us to figure out whether NASA’s bet on these companies will pay off. As they say, the proof is in the pudding. Doing science at the moon is hard – do not let anyone tell you otherwise. If that commercial model works, though, it needs to be utilized elsewhere. Frankly, we urgently need it at/near Earth to accelerate innovation. But, there are other destinations as well one could imagine. Let’s sign up to a yearly mission to GEO and figure out what payloads go on it afterwards. Why not?

Yes, in each of these domains, it is critical to define Team not just as a subset of NASA, but also the commercial and international partners, as well as the entities that are there. Gene Kranz once said, and any athlete knows: “Leadership is fragile.” Leadership also needs to dare, and enhance the toolset of discovery and exploration. Standing still is retreating.

So, as we celebrate the successes of the James Webb Space Telescope, and getting ready to launch Roman with a technology demonstration Coronagraph, we can imagine the Habitable Worlds Observatory – one optimized to find Earth-like planets. NASA has announced that this telescope will rely on large launch vehicles and robotic servicing creating a new model of a mountain-top observatory in space. Imagine that. Now let’s go make it happen.

With that, I want to come back to my summary I already discussed and allow for some time for questions. Thank you for the opportunity to address you today.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.