Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space

A recent GOES-16 image

“This beast is best felt. Shake, rattle, and roll. We are thrown left and right against our straps in spasmodic little jerks. It is steering like crazy, like a nervous lady driving a wide car down a narrow alley, and I just hope it knows where it’s going, because for the first ten seconds we are perilously close to that umbilical tower.”

— Michael Collins, Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, NASA SP-350, 1975

“The vehicle explodes, literally explodes, off the pad. The simulator shakes you a little bit, but the actual liftoff shakes your entire body and soul.”

— Mike McCulley, Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years, 2002.

Friday, January 5, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released a new report: Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space.


Those of us of a certain age vividly remember the Apollo space program. Every several months from 1968-1972 astronauts would venture into space. They achieved many milestones over the period, the most memorable being the lunar landings. Memories of launch failures and tragedies were still raw. The launches were televised live and the world would hold its collective breath for a few suspenseful minutes that would then extend over the next few days. The fiery final moments of reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere would generate another spasm of concern and then everyone could exhale.

Until the next launch.

These days, space exploration has reached a level of maturity. Telescopic investigations have progressively achieved greater resolution and staying power, and harnessed new bands of the electromagnetic wave spectrum to probe the very boundaries of the universe. Unmanned probes continue to provide new detail about the planets and other components of our solar system. Humans are poised to take another run at the moon and possibly Mars.

Still, after all these years, it remains true, as Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) once said to start a hearing, “…The planet that has to matter the most to us is the one we live on. You would think that would go without saying. And we are woefully ignorant of the way this planet works, of the functioning of the land, the oceans, and the atmosphere and how they interact. It is great if Earth science can contribute to exploration and greater still if exploration of other planets could teach us more about the planet Earth…”

The need and the urgency articulated by Congressman Boehlert has motivated the Decadal Surveys of Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS). These are conducted by expert committees organized by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine every 10 years to provide guidance for NASA and other science agencies on the top priorities in space and earth science disciplines. The Surveys help the United States maintain a disciplined emphasis on space observations to gain the knowledge needed to: tend the Earth’s food, energy, and water resources, so they’ll support a total human population numbering 9B; build resilience to natural hazards; and at the same time slow or turn around the worrying degradation of Earth’s habitats, landscapes, biomes, water, and air.

The first Survey, published in 2007, by all accounts accomplished its job. But the challenge, complexity, cost, and contentiousness of managing the planet have grown since then. To provide useful and compelling guidance out to 2027, the second Survey would need to be comprehensive, detailed, address not just national and even global needs, but also budgets, schedules, and feasibility, and accomplish all this in a convincing manner. Among those tracking the Survey’s progress, it has been clear for some years that the quality and heft of this report would matter as much as any multi-billion-dollar launch of a satellite or probe. The suspense has matched that spirit from the Apollo launches. Tension has slowly been mounting: would the Second Decadal Survey prove a worthy successor to the first?

As of this past Friday, the answer is in:


There’s 700+ pages of material here; anybody claiming to have read the report in the 48 hours since its release with the care it deserves would be lying. But other signs make it clear that the Survey provides the needed guidance. That starts with the framework/architecture of the report. Here’s just the merest hint:

  1. Commit to sustained science and applications;
  2. Embrace innovative methodologies for integrated science/applications;
  3. Amplify the cross-benefit of science and applications;
  4. Leverage external resources and partnerships;
  5. Institutionalize programmatic agility and balance;
  6. Exploit external trends in technology and user needs;
  7. Expand use of competition; and
  8. Pursue ambitious science, despite constraint.

Most importantly, the body of the report delivers in putting flesh on the bones of this framework: the context of rapid societal and global change. The emphasis on the scientific questions to be addressed and resolved. The balance between advance of science and application for societal benefit, not just nationally but globally. The push for innovation. The stress on institutions and building capacity. It’s all there, and more.

And the exposition! The clarity and crispness of the language! The articulation of a vision organically connected to the detail, not just patched on! The leaders of this study, Waleed Abdalati and Bill Gail, would be the first to tell you that substantive content of the report and the beauty of the language are the product of dozens of panelists and contributors and NAS staff and reviewers, and they’d be right. But both Waleed and Bill are not just first-rank scientists, but the closest thing to poet laureates in our field. To listen to either or both, to read their work, is to come away not just educated but inspired. (Bill Gail’s Climate Conundrums: What the Climate Debate Reveals about Us is a case in point.) Nowhere has that been more true than in this report.

Thank Bill and Waleed, and their collaborators, and the NAS, as soon as you get the chance. Come to their Town Hall presentation at the AMS Annual Meeting (Wednesday 12:15, Ballroom G, Conference Center). Download the report or get a hardcopy. Make this one of your handbooks for navigating the next ten years.

And, if you’re early career, spend every day positioning yourself to help prepare the third Survey. The world will come looking for you starting about 2025.

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One Response to Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space

  1. Bill:-

    Indeed impressive, but…

    I found one thread particularly annoying; the implication (and the assertion in a few places) that “the science is settled” and most of the change in our climate is anthropogenic. How much more effective a more humble approach might have been.

    For example, take H-2 (please). “How do anthropogenic changes in climate, land use, water use, and water storage interact and modify the water and energy cycles…?” This presupposes that we can separate natural (i.e., non-anthropogenic) climate variability from what humankind has done and is doing. Or don’t need to, because Nature’s contribution is so small. This seems hubristic. To me, it is far more important to solve the “attribution problem” once and for all, rather than make this premature claim of victory. In my opinion, this is a necessary first step for “Reducing Climate Uncertainty and Informing Societal Response.”

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