With manned spaceflight programs nearly a thing of the past, NASA is handing the shuttle-building baton to private interests like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Space X program. But the administration may be finding new life — in the battle against climate change. A major proponent of this idea, President Barack Obama has shuffled NASA’s budget to dedicate $2.4 billion to study earth from above.
The money, to be doled out over the next five years, is a 62 percent increase in the administration’s Earth Science budget — one of the initiatives that was pruned back during the Bush presidency. NASA will use the infusion to measure ocean and atmospheric temperatures over different regions, track ice cap size, and gauge the amount of carbon dioxide in the air at different altitudes — and where it came from. Ten new missions will be launched in all.
There are already 13 satellites dedicated to climate change research orbiting the Earth — but many of these are antiquated and badly need to be replaced. The only way the data collected will be valuable is if consistent and reliable measurements are taken at constant intervals. There’s very little room for error, considering last December’s controversy over fudged climate research and the backlash it inspired. The current equipment would not be capable of this level of accuracy.
In addition to replacing and fixing up existing satellites, NASA will launch five new ones, including an extension to the International Space Station (pictured above) that will continually monitor the ozone. Considering this new functionality, the Obama administration wants to extend the station’s lifespan by five years — it was originally intended to end in 2015 due to budget cuts.
The budget increases have faced some tough opposition in Congress. Not only are many of the members unenthusiastic about dedicating more resources to climate change study, they are also concerned that funds are being diverted from NASA’s Constellation program, which focuses on improving traditional spaceflight. The Obama administration has been instrumental in promoting private spaceflight companies to take over in this area, an idea that hasn’t won many fans.