NASA's 'Mission to Planet Earth'

CONGRESSIONAL debate over NASA's innovative Mission to Planet Earth illustrates how funding priorities that could produce tangible returns on investment are being overlooked amid political rhetoric. If funding for the project is gutted, there will be losers among the public and winners whose objective is short-term political gain.

As we approach the millennium, humanity may be faced with environmental crises of great proportions: climate warming, rising sea levels, deforestation, ozone depletion, acid rain, and reduction of biodiversity. I won't see the ramifications, but my grandchildren likely will.

NASA has been working with scientists worldwide to establish a method of measuring and analyzing evidence to guide environmental policymaking, through the US Global Change Research Program. NASA's contribution - Mission to Planet Earth - is anchored by an Earth Observing System consisting of orbiting satellites for observations of the land surface, biosphere, atmosphere, and oceans. These satellites (the first is scheduled for launch in June 1998) will provide an understanding of the extent to which human activity contributes to global change. An International Earth Observing System also is anticipated.

When it was funded in 1991, the project was to have studied broader issues of global change, including earthquakes and the earth's magnetic field. It was downsized to concentrate primarily on climate change, reducing the projected cost from $20 billion to $12.1 billion through 2000.

The idea of "human activity" in relation to global environmental change isn't new for scientists but may be for the public. My own university has been studying the subject for nearly 75 years. Current generations have contributed to this century's remarkable increase in the standard of living through their ability to use the earth's natural resources. So, thinking of the earth as something that has meaning independent of human use takes getting used to. The problem is we've never been able to truly measure the relationship of humanity to global change.

Debate over the mission, which addresses this problem of objective measurement, has become confused with Contract With America efforts to diminish government regulation. This comes from flawed logic that the more we know about the environment, the more we'll regulate needlessly.

Mission to Planet Earth shouldn't be confused with owls-versus-jobs debates. There are continuing misperceptions that a healthy business environment and physical environment are necessarily mutually exclusive and that the earth is sufficiently regenerative. Those who would cripple Mission to Planet Earth are exploiting these misperceptions.

Today's environmental concerns should center on reconciling environmental sustainability with economic development. The result is "sustainable development," meaning that the economies of the world must meet the needs of today's generations without compromising the health of tomorrow's.

For instance, we must know whether rising temperatures worldwide are normal cyclical changes or the first signs of a greenhouse effect brought about by certain industrial pollutants. Armed with that kind of information, reasonable people can find reasonable ways of diminishing environmental threats to future generations and preserve their chances of attaining today's standard of living.

Mission to Planet Earth is in competition with NASA's proposals for a space station. Both are important, but Mission to Planet Earth is more so. The project delivers direct benefits to taxpayers in an area of crucial concern and potentially momentous consequence.

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