day—not just for the weather but to explore and monitor all components of the Earth system. International cooperation has other dimensions as well. When the U.S. GOES-W satellite failed in 1989, it was replaced by a French Meteosat. From 2003 to 2005, GOES 9 was on loan to Japan to cover a significant gap in Japan’s meteorological satellite coverage.
Our imperfect appreciation of how much has been accomplished in the past 50 years may well reflect a gap in historical comprehension. The “missile gap” widely feared in 1957 was not real, and the militarization of space, fortunately, has not happened yet. International cooperation, rather than competition, has become the dominant theme in the space age, not only in satellite hardware but also in creative analysis and use of satellite data. Just what would the world be like without scientific satellite remote sensing and services? It would be much like 1957. The Moon would be Earth’s only satellite. There would be no weather eyes in the sky—no global ability to monitor changes in atmospheric composition, in ecosystems and land use, in climate variability and change, in Earth’s surface and land-use changes, in ocean physical and biological processes, or in ice sheets.
The complexity of today’s bureaucratic and budgetary practices has created a time delay problem. Many of the expert consultants who made presentations to this committee mentioned the ease of moving among agencies and programs in the early days and how new ideas were rapidly tested and research results found quick expression in operational systems. The ideas generated by Wexler, Van Allen, Suomi, and others were well supported and well funded, with comparative ease. The ferment of ideas was supported by rapid development and short time lags between concept and launch. This no longer seems to be the case.
A final issue derives from findings of the National Academies’ recent decadal survey of Earth science missions that reports an actual “satellite gap” in which space resources will decrease dramatically compared to the scientific challenges associated with, for example, climate change research. These satellite data gaps also stand in stark contrast to the stunning and growing needs for space-based information by the world’s inhabitants (NRC 2007a).
At the dawn of the space age, the very first satellites provided new and important scientific knowledge of the Earth system that could not be obtained by any other means. The first two decades were extremely exciting, yet new discoveries, transformative breakthroughs, proof of concepts, improved understanding, and societal benefits have continued to accumulate, as the following chapters in this report document. How can we compare the cumulative amount spent by the nations of the world on the scientific study of Earth from space with the inestimable value of understanding our home planet?