NASA officials want to mount ``a new and challenging'' planetary venture -- ``a mission to Planet Earth.'' It would be part of a massive in-ternational effort to meet what a committee of Earth scientists calls humanity's ``new responsibility for our global future.'' Extensive space-based surveillance would help keep tabs on how the planet is doing.
Our ``new responsibility'' reflects the fact that ``we have become part of the Earth system and one of the forces for Earth change,'' says NASA's Earth System Sciences Committee (ESSC).
People erode the soil, destroy the forests, and create deserts. They pollute the air with carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases to a degree that may permanently change Earth's climate. They've joined wind, rain, volcanos, and the ponderous drift of continents as a major force for global change. And they don't know what they're doing.
``These [people-driven] changes seem irreversible,'' warns ESSC chairman Francis P. Bretherton of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He adds that this challenges humanity ``to develop the capability to predict those changes that will occur in the next decade to century.'' To do that, he explains, we first have to ``obtain a scientific understanding of the entire Earth System on a global scale.''
Sensing this need three years ago, NASA's advisory council commissioned ESSC to prepare a plan for action. Dr. Bretherton outlined that plan at a press conference Thursday. It is global in geographic coverage and comprehensive in scientific scope. It needs decades of time and the scientific resources of the entire planet to achieve its goal of comprehensive knowledge of Earth. And, within the United States, it requires the combined efforts of several agencies.
That is why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the presentation. NSF director Erich Bloch noted that, while the projected research is unprecedented in scope, scientists can handle it.
``For the first time in history, we have the capability to observe Earth from the outer reaches of its atmosphere to its molten inner core,'' he said. Orbiting satellites that track weather, map the land, trace Earth's gravitational and magnetic fields, probe the atmosphere, and monitor ocean currents, provide a crucial part of this new capability.
NASA administrator James C. Fletcher said his agency ``is ready to work together with the international community to understand Earth as a system.''
Referring to the need to get NASA back on its feet, he added that everything that has to be done to correct deficiencies will be done. And he said he expects the agency to be able to make a full US contribution to the proposed space surveillence system.
Satellites from Western Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and possibly from India and China would also be involved.
Such international arrangements have yet to be worked out. But ESSC has received favorable responses to its general plan from many countries. Jack Eddy of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research said that the Soviets, in particular, ``have been very positive'' in their response.
The ESSC plan would start by coordinating existing and presently planned research programs and facilities as part of a master research program. The concept of Earth as a system in which all its parts -- air, land, sea, and organic life -- interact as a whole has been evolving for some time. A number of national and international research projects already study some of the interactions. Existing facilities such as research ships and satellites are producing data relevant to ESSC's overall goal.
However, by the mid 1990s, ESSC expects the coordination to be finished and an international research plan to be underway. That's when NASA would have to be ready to launch new satellites. Polar orbiting platforms for Earth scanning instruments -- which are part of its current space station plan -- would be especially important. NASA officials at the press conference said they hope they will be ready to provide such satellites in time.
The US share of the program does require some extra research funding -- especially in NASA, NOAA, and NSF. But this is not massive. Bretherton said that about $1 billion now is spent annually for relevant research over all federal agencies. He said ESSC foresees the need for a 20 to 50 percent increase in that.
Bretherton noted that he considers this to be some of the most important research that can be done at this time. He explained that the expected planetary changes ``will take climate and our natural environment outside the range of historical experience. Our children and grandchildren throughout the world will have to develop new definitions of what is normal, to adjust their expectations of floods and drought, to alter their supplies of food and water to cope with new realities. . . . We must start now to lay the foundations of knowledge and understanding for our successors to act upon.''