In the NASA hanger at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Colonel Keith Balts describes his role as the ʻlaunch decision authorityʼ for the upcoming launch of a satellite called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) that will be hitching a ride on board a rocket. With the words, “clear for launch” Col. Balts will send the Delta II rocket and its payload into orbit. Balts is also the man who must shoot the spacecraft out of the sky should it go off course.
“We track it,” he says, “if itʼs not going in the right direction we crack it.”
Balts looks confident for a reason. Just one week earlier, he conducted a successful ballistic missile defence (BMD) intercept test from Vandenberg. Described as the equivalent of hitting a bullet with a bullet many questioned whether it can be done. On this particular day however, all eyes are on the launch of satellite OCO-2, expected to take place at exactly 2:56:44 the next morning.
The launch of OCO-2, NASAʼs first satellite to track carbon dioxide 24 hours a day will provide scientists with data on the effect of carbon on climate not just as a snapshot in time, but continuously as part of changing patterns over at least 2 years.
It is an interesting operational pivot from military defence to earth science but Vandenberg Air Force Base is where space exploration and the military industrial complex intersect from one mission to the next with the same sense of duty. Home to NASA, Air Force Space Command and 30th Space Wing, every space and missile operator in the United States Military will train and work here at some point. And events taking place at this remote base on the California coast are of concern to Canada.
Staring at the sky in the early California morning and feeling the ground quake under your feet one better understands the enormity of NASAʼs efforts to preserve the planet. Major General Charlie Bolden, a former marine and astronaut, is the current Administrator (i.e., head) of NASA. Giving some sense of the source of this commitment by the space program,. Bolden says seeing the planet from space “turns a non-environmentalist into an environmentalist very quick.”
Not surprisingly, the launch of OCO-2 is an event that NASA wants you to know about. Using Twitter to “crowd-source” invitees (including this writer) to attend the launch, NASA handpicked attendees as part of the wider campaign to inform the public policy and target decision-makers. Even the satellite itself had a twitter account @iamCO2. NASAʼs newest tag line: “Your planet is changing. Weʼre on it.” makes their priorities clear.
“You’re the latest weapon we have. Just by your being here and doing what you do, you’ve opened up an avenue of communication for us. Tell people how you feel about what you are seeing. If you’re disappointed that is all right. But if you’re giddy, in thebest words you can in 140 characters in your tweeting, let them know how you feel because you’re seeing something leave the planet.”
(Head of NASA Major General Charlie Bolden)
The access is unusual. There is no mistaking that Air Force Space Command is not the tourist destination of Kennedy Space Center. Vandenberg is an Alpha-level, secure military air force base steeped in military history. It is also the location of the largest loss of US Navy ships during peacetime. Ask anyone on the base or residents of the predictably All-American town of Lompoc nearby, and they are happy to tell the story.
On the evening of September 8th, 1923 twelve navy destroyers ran aground off the shore of what is now the western launch site of the base. Commander of the fleet, Captain Edward Watson guiding the flagship destroyer USS Delphy, did not trust the new science of ʻradioʼ navigation recently made available on his own deck. Not relying on the numbers, he instead used a technique called “dead reckoning.” Dead reckoning calculates a shipʼs position using a measure of previously held positions and nautical spin. Underestimating the strong currents and blinded by the heavy fog that still hangs on the base today, he lead 12 Destroyers straight into the rocks.
It is fitting that one of the most technology advanced locations in America was built around this cautionary tale. It is not surprising that those here at Vandenberg work towards the belief as astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan once said that “our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.”
A recent report released by the Department of Natural Resources makes it clear that Canada is less than wide awake. The report shows that Canada will continue to suffer extreme weather events like floods, fires and storms but there remains a gap between awareness and action. In short, governments are lagging behind in their ability to adapt.
In public discourse, climate change continues to be stubbornly debated despite wide consensus – in fact, near unanimity — in the scientific community. As recently as last month, at least one Canadian public office holder still questioned whether that science has been “settled”. Recently, there have been calls for the CBC to follow the BBC example and stop giving climate change deniers any airtime.
NASA officials here describe it as a “false debate”. Science has moved well beyond political theatre. The data collected by OCO-2 will measure the changes at regional and continental levels and provide information on how to manage and plan for the future that some decision-makers refuse to acknowledge. NASA is launching a fleet of earth observing satellites, with five satellites focused on earth sciences to be launched this year alone.
NASA also have new partners. The base today houses launch pads that creep out of the same fog as you travel up the coast including the launch complex belonging to SpaceX CEO and visionary Elon Musk. His Falcon and Dragon spacecraft were awarded the $1.6 billion NASA contract as delivery vehicles to the International Space Station (replacing the Space Shuttle). Musk, the CEO of Tesla motors, also recently released his environment-friendly patents, solidifying his reputation as a Global citizen.
In fact, NASAʼs focus on earth science has not been at the expense of space exploration. After conducting space shuttle missions for 30 years there has been a successful transition to private space companies taking over that role. The agency’s support of commercial space transportation has enabled significant progress toward returning the capability for American companies to launch astronauts from American soil. In short, with public private partnerships NASA is re-imagining the future.
However, this type of imagination can be expensive. The NASA investment on this satellite mission alone — including design, development, launch and operations — is $467.7 million. Canada does not have the luxury of such resources. This makes the fact that NASA will be sharing their data and information with the world more important. But for it to have been a useful investment one would hope that the information will lead towards policy action.
By ignoring the science, Canadian leadership risks making the same mistake Captain Watson made on that night in 1923 when he ignored the new ʻradioʼ numbers. Dead reckoning our path forward by calculating our current position using previously held positions and spin, without regard for the evolving environment will drive us into the rocks. This is true particularly in cases where our American colleagues have made it clear they take the science of the environment so seriously. That could include the Keystone XL pipeline currently in President Obamaʼs hands for approval.
Renée Filiatrault is accredited with Information Operations Officer Battlefield training and served Task Force Kandahar in Afghanistan. Before that, she served two Ministers of National Defence. She is currently a professor at the Algonquin College School of Media.