Spaceflight Insider

Did Al Gore ‘invent’ DSCOVR?

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore discusses NOAA's DSCOVR mission during an impromptu press conference held at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 8. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore discusses NOAA's DSCOVR mission during an impromptu press conference held at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 8. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

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).

DSCOVR spacecraft SpaceX Falcon 9 payload fairing photo credit Kim Shiflett / NASA

The DSCOVR spacecraft prior to its encapsulation in the payload fairing. Photo Credit: Kim Shiflett / NASA

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.


DSCOVR lifts off from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 in this image. Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

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.

DSCOVR spacecraft in cleanroom with scientists - Copy

The DSCOVR spacecraft used to be known as Triana – after the member of Columbus’ crew that spotted the New World. The satellite has also unofficially been dubbed “GoreSat.” Photo Credit: Kim Shiflett / NASA

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.”


Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) left and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore during the Feb. 8, 2015 press conference at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

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.

SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 NOAA NASA DSCOVR photo credit Mike Howard SpaceFlight Insider

DSCOVR lifted off at 6:03 p.m. EST (2303 GMT) and will now orbit some one million miles distant from Earth. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider


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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.

Reader Comments

What a waste of money for very little return. Here again, the US is paying for something that mainly benefits northern hemisphere country’s. Not only that the cost doesn’t equal the return or benefit we’ll gain from this mission.

On another note, the space community has no respect for Bill Nelson for what he did to all the shuttle workers at KSC in his district. He has done absolutely nothing in attracting jobs to his district and has let Bolden slow walk the SLS and Commercial Crew program. I seriously doubt he will be re-elected.

I gave a disrespectfully cynical assessment of the original concept at the end of a long essay on politicization of space under Clinton-Gore, here:

11/04/2000 – Toward a Post-Clinton-Gore Space Policy

One other amusing sign of NASA’s slavish obedience to political whims is a project called Triana, a satellite literally dreamed up one night by Gore.

The satellite would provide the first full-face images of Earth’s sunlit side, which Gore contended would inspire American children. Although many satellites already provide segments of such views, they have to be computer-stitched together, which apparently spoils the emotional effect even though it looks the same.

NASA quickly approved the project, while space officials praised Gore’s insights and imagination. The agency skipped normal science review and competitive evaluation processes. Once the project became funded, scientists added some useful instruments to the payload besides the camera.

Jesse is right on above,
Bill Nelson is considered a joke in Brevard County Florida, he gets on TV saying he’s going to do this and that for the aerospace workers in his district, but does absolutely nothing but spew hot air. Still massive unemployment in that area and he has let NASA slow walk all the manned space flight programs.
As far as Al Gore is concerned, the people of Tennessee despise him as well. thru all of his bazar environmental policies, he has brought development and industry in that state to a screeching halt.

Tom your comments are obviously biased. While you are entitled to your opinion, you do not have the right to distort reality. First of all, Mr. Gore has been out of office for fifteen years now and has had absolutely nothing to do with Tennessee’s industrial development or lack thereof. While there may have been some downturn in industrial development in Tennessee, the blame would fall squarely on the Republicans since they have controlled politics in the state for the last eight to ten years (both US Senators and seven of nine Congressmen are Republican). Governor Phil Bredesen was the Democratic Governor from 2002-2010, however he was a fiscal conservative and the State of Tennessee enjoyed economic stability during a national recession. Furthermore, not everyone in Tennessee dislikes Al Gore and in fact he is more popular there than most other politicians. Finally if you knew anything about NASA and space exploration you would realize that both democrats and republicans have supported NASA. In addition, during the Clinton-Gore administration, NASA’s budget actually was higher than the eight years under President George W. Bush. If you want to play politics then have fun.

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