Space in the Environment Energy Decade

Space, per se, declined sharply as a policy priority in the 1970s, while environment and energy concerns rose. James Fletcher, NASA Administrator from 1971 to 1977 (and again from 1986 to 1989) was personally interested in the environment and no doubt also understood it as a way to keep NASA relevant to the nation's needs. He explicitly stressed NASA's environmental mission and sought to broaden it. He told Congress in 1973 that NASA was "an environmental agency" and that "everything we do. helps in some practical way to improve the environment of our planet and helps us understand the forces that affect it" [4].

In 1972, NASA launched Landsat, a satellite intended to do for land resources what meteorological satellites were doing for weather and atmosphere. There was not one user agency for Landsat, but many potential users, both public and private. NASA launched a number of demonstrations of Landsat in the 1970s that were aimed at enticing various users to become interested in taking over Landsat once it was operational. The Carter White House, in 1979, transferred management of Landsat to NOAA in hopes of stimulating its use. NASA, meanwhile, continued to look for ways to show relevance at a time when it was developing the Shuttle and manned spaceflights were not taking place. The Landsat story takes on a life of its own, mostly tangential to NASA after 1979. It is a troubled life, owing to the issue of uncertainty as to "who" were its users and who would take it over if NASA gave it up once it passed from R&D.

Meanwhile, energy exploded as an issue in the 1970s, and NASA sought to relate to it, while strengthening and diversifying its environmental credentials. Along with the Department of Energy, NASA studied the notion of solar power satellites (SPS). These would entail an array of solar cells of enormous scale— perhaps the size of Manhattan—positioned in space to pick up solar rays and beam them in the form of microwaves to Earth. They would go to large receiving stations on Earth and be transferred to the electrical grid [5]. The sheer scale and cost of this enterprise, coupled with the end of the energy crisis in the early 1980s, meant that SPS never got beyond studies.

Also, as energy shortages were linked with environmental concerns, the notion of "limits to growth" gained prominence in the 1970s, aided by a book of the same name [6]. One of the more imaginative ways space, energy and environment converged in the 1970s was the concept of communes in space. Gerard O'Neil, a noted Princeton physicist, published a visionary article in the journal Physics Today in 1974. There, he outlined a scheme for human migration beyond planet Earth.

He proposed colonies situated in huge structures at "Lagrangian" points in space where gravity between Earth and Sun would hold the required structures in balance and provide stability. His ideas caught on with a number of people, as these colonies would be eco-friendly, rely on solar energy, and employ recycling. O'Neil was a serious scientist who received NASA support to develop his ideas. He gave rise to a movement called the L5 society, i.e., people seeking utopia in space. Although the movement continued in the 1980s, it never gained enough momentum to become viable in influencing policy. O'Neil died in 1992, his vision unfulfilled [7].

National Aeronautics and Space Administration's greatest success in the 1970s, in terms of environmental policy, lay in acquiring a specific mandate to pursue research on an emerging environmental issue—one that became pivotal in the global environmental movement in the succeeding decade—the stratospheric ozone. With NASA actively lobbying, Congress in 1975 directed NASA "to conduct a comprehensive program of research, technology, and monitoring of the phenomena of the upper atmosphere." In 1977, the year Fletcher stepped down as NASA Administrator, Congress directed NASA to issue biennial reports to Congress on the status of the ozone depletion problem. Together, the 1975 and 1977 acts legitimized an expansion of NASA's environmental role.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration moved ahead in a related area at the same time. In 1978, NASA launched Seasat, a satellite to test the uses of remote sensing to the oceans. Although it operated only 3^2 months, Seasat revealed that space could assist in dealing with ocean-related environmental concerns [8].

The idea of combining NASA's atmospheric, land and ocean satellites into a larger, comprehensive environmental monitoring system appealed to James Beggs when he became NASA Administrator in 1981. In 1982, Beggs proclaimed NASA's desire to lead "an international cooperative project to use space technology to address natural and man-made changes affecting habit-ability of Earth." The proposal fell flat politically at the time. It was premature, especially in the Reagan administration. If anything, the Reagan White House wished to lower the government's environmental profile, which it equated with regulation [9].

For NASA, this rebuff meant shifting into an extensive planning mode, enlisting the scientific community, as well as other agencies, to build support for the idea. What NASA needed was some catalyst that would allow it to promote its larger environmental claims. It soon got the catalyst from the environmental issue where it was best positioned to take a "lead agency" role.

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