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We Can Put A Man On Mars, But We Can't Build A New Landsat

Via Chris Mooney, I see that Science has asked the Bush and Kerry campaigns a series of questions about science and environmental policy. What got my attention was the question about the space program. Both Science's question and the campaigns' responses essentially equated the space program with explorations of outer space. They talked about things like the space station and manned missions to Mars. I don't dispute that those things are important. But I think one of the really critical parts of our space program -- though not a charismatic and vote-getting issue -- is its contribution to exploring the Earth. A critical component of any effective program to manage global environmental issues is satellite-based monitoring. A continuous record of remote sensing data is vital, yet neither campaign mentioned it.

Take, for example, the Landsat program. Landsat is one of the most important remote sensing satellites we have. Yet its equipment is staring obsolescene in the face. Landsat 7, our most up-to-date satellite in the program, had a 5-year projected lifespan when it was launched in 1999. Since last year, its sensors have been malfunctioning, compromising the quality of the data it provides. Yet there are no plans to launch Landsat 8 yet. As a geographer, I'd like to hear the candidates commit a fraction of the energy they're putting into medical advances to keeping our environmental monitoring system up to date.

And on an additional personal pet peeve note, both campaigns implicitly defined "science" as "natural science." Given the salience of the role of human activity in climate change (both causation and mitigation), and both campaigns' stated commitment to enhancing the role of citizens and communities in environmental management, you'd think some support for basic social science research would be in order.


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