Did Al Gore ‘invent’ DSCOVR?
In a hastily-arranged NASA press conference just prior to the scheduled Feb. 8, 2015, launch attempt of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR ) satellite, Senator Bill Nelson (D, FL) revealed that the conceptual idea for the spacecraft that has morphed into DSCOVR originated with former Vice President Al Gore. Gore, in turn, credited fellow Democrats Nelson as well as Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) with being instrumental in rescuing the satellite from a storage facility in Greenbelt, Maryland. Even though DSCOVR has been unofficially dubbed “GoreSat” – was the former VP that instrumental in the spacecraft’s development?
For his part, Gore went on to explain that DSCOVR will perform a role vital to the environmental health of our planet, measuring what he described as the energy budget of the Earth. Nelson and Gore had to leave for the launch before reporters could ask questions, as is usually the practice at NASA news conferences. But documents provided by NASA and NOAA, as well as a comprehensive review, have revealed an interesting and convoluted history of the spacecraft that is finally making its way to an orbit nearly four times farther from Earth than the Moon (DSCOVR will orbit the Sun some one million miles distant from Earth).
DISCOVR was resurrected from a mothballed late 1990s mission named Triana. According to an Oct. 27, 1998, NASA release, that original mission was named for the sailor on Columbus’ voyage who first spotted the land of the “New World.” Triana would be a satellite mission to L1 (the Lagrange libration, or neutral gravity point between the Earth and the Sun). From L1, Triana will have a continuous, full disk, sunlit view of the Earth. The mission will provide this view of the Earth for distribution over the Internet at the beginning of the new millennium.
The release does not state that Gore as the originator of the concept, but the White House did issue an earlier March 13, 1998 press release announcing that:
“Vice President Gore challenges NASA to build a new satellite to provide live images of Earth from outer space” (regretfully, the internet link to the Clinton Presidential Archives would not deliver the document).
However, the August 2014 issue of Air & Space Magazine reported the following about Triana, “It was born one night in February 1998, when then Vice President Al Gore bolted out of bed with a vision of providing “a clearer view of our world,” as he would describe it a few weeks later when he announced the idea during a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” more commonly known as MIT.
According to Air & Space [Gore]: “challenged NASA to send a satellite to the L1 Lagrange Point, a spot one million miles from Earth in the direction of the Sun, where the two bodies’ gravitational pulls are in equilibrium. Once there, Triana would create a digital age version of Apollo 17’s iconic ‘blue marble’ photograph by beaming back a continuous real-time view of Earth’s sunlit side.
This sight would, Gore hoped, heighten consciousness of the planet’s environmental fragility, and encourage contemplation of how global warming could gravely affect it. With the vice president’s name attached to it, the Triana concept moved through NASA at the bureaucratic equivalent of warp speed. By July, NASA was soliciting proposals to design instruments for the satellite, which, due to its proximity to the sun, would already be equipped with a suite of instruments called Plasma-Mag to measure solar wind and magnetic output.”
In October of 1998, NASA announced the winning proposal: “Dr. Francisco P.J. Valero of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a part of the University of California at San Diego, has been selected the Principal Investigator to lead development of the Triana mission. Dr. Valero’s mission concept includes two scientific instruments: the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), to be built by Lockheed-Martin Advanced Technology Center of Palo Alto, CA, and an advanced radiometer, from a source to be selected later this fall. Triana also will include a small, next- generation space weather monitoring instrument to contribute to our understanding of how solar events affect Earth-orbiting spacecraft, such as communications satellites.”
Interestingly, preliminary plans included sending Triana into space aboard the ill-fated STS-107 (the final flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003) mission, though another payload eventually replaced it. Keep in mind that at the time that Triana was being conceived, the sex scandal surrounding Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was unfolding, and as early as January 1998, the BBC and others were reporting that Americans might wake up one morning with Al Gore as President. While Clinton survived impeachment, planning for a Gore run at the White House appeared to get underway. A formal announcement came on June 16. 1999.
Given a nation’s capital engrossed in politics, there are also those who claim that Congressional Republicans derailed the Triana mission. While such opposition did exist (U.S. Representative and ranking member of the House Science committee Dave Weldon from Florida called it a “multi-million-dollar screen saver” that would take money from real research), the most important challenge to Triana came from Roberta Gross, the NASA Inspector General and a Clinton appointee.
Her September 10, 1999, report stated, “In the context of NASA’s constrained budget and the widespread availability of satellite pictures of the Earth, we are concerned about the cost and changing goals of the Triana mission. A relatively simple and inexpensive mission focused primarily (though not exclusively) on inspiration and education has evolved into a more complex mission focused primarily on science. The added scientific capabilities will increase the amount of data gathered by the mission, but they will also increase the mission’s total cost. In addition, due to the mission’s circumscribed peer review process, we are concerned that Triana’s added science may not represent the best expenditure of NASA’s limited science funding. Launching the spacecraft also does not further the goals of the National Space Policy of 1996 and the Commercial Space Act of 1998, which direct NASA to acquire spacecraft and launch vehicles from the private sector whenever possible. We believe these concerns are of sufficient magnitude that the Agency should reassess its current approach to the Triana mission, and modify that approach if necessary.”
Naturally, NASA management objected, but the mission’s momentum was slowed. In a letter dated October 14, 1999, the House asked the National Research Council to evaluate Triana. On March 3, 2000, the Council’s Task Force issued a report endorsing the mission but recommending “NASA seriously consider increasing the level of effort invested in development and testing of data reduction algorithms for the core earth data products as soon as possible,” though it acknowledged that there “may be insufficient funding for scientific analysis of the data.” In other words, further delay. By that time the presidential campaign was in full swing. The Supreme Court’s contentious December 2000 decision of Bush v. Gore not only ended Gore quest for the White House but also further stalled Triana. In 2002 the $100 million satellite was sent to a technology limbo, a storage bay at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Fast forward to November 2008 when the satellite was removed from storage for a possible revival. By early 2009, NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Air Force concluded that it could be refurbished and retrofitted with additional instrumentation and an expanded purpose. At about the same time, Gore released his book Our Choice in which he advocated a similar mission. The book mentions legislative efforts by Senators Barbara Mikulski and Bill Nelson to get the satellite launched.
NASA renamed the satellite Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), in an attempt to regain support for the project. In Feb. 2011, the Obama administration attempted to secure funding to re-purpose the DSCOVR spacecraft as a solar observatory to replace the aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft. In Sept. 2013 NASA cleared DSCOVR to proceed to the implementation phase targeting an early 2015 launch.
While it can be argued that Gore is the person responsible for certain aspects of the DSCOVR mission, the spacecraft that launched yesterday, the satellite’s abilities and configuration have changed since Triana was conceived in the late 90s. Perhaps Gore’s most obvious contribution to the mission is the concept of a live TV picture of Earth from a deep space satellite.
Jim Siegel comes from a business and engineering background, as well as a journalistic one. He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, an MBA from the University of Michigan, and executive certificates from Northwestern University and Duke University. Jim got interested in journalism in 2002. As a resident of Celebration, FL, Disney’s planned community outside Orlando, he has written and performed photography extensively for the Celebration Independent and the Celebration News. He has also written for the Detroit News, the Indianapolis Star, and the Northwest Indiana Times (where he started his newspaper career at age 11 as a paperboy). Jim is well known around Celebration for his photography, and he recently published a book of his favorite Celebration scenes. Jim has covered the Kennedy Space Center since 2006. His experience has brought a unique perspective to his coverage of first, the space shuttle Program, and now the post-shuttle era, as US space exploration accelerates its dependence on commercial companies. He specializes in converting the often highly technical aspects of the space program into contexts that can be understood and appreciated by average Americans.