- Atmospheric Science at NASA: A History
In his latest book, Erik Conway takes on the task of explaining NASA's expanding interest in atmospheric sciences. The growing public awareness of climate changes makes Conway's book quite timely, detailing as it does the historical origins of modern meteorology and the early activities of NASA in atmospheric sciences. Intra-agency rivalries between an embryonic NASA, the Defense Department, the Weather Bureau, and the Department of Commerce complicated the space agency's activities in satellite meteorology and further hindered satellite deployment. While agency leaders reconciled competing agendas, NASA scientists and engineers created a series of instruments in the late 1950s and 1960s that allowed the agency to produce a global meteorological perspective. Although these new instruments were afflicted with problems of calibration and reliability, and made large errors, Conway argues that, for the first time, they offered a daily source of global meteorological data.
The sudden conclusion of NASA's Moon explorations has been typically portrayed as the high-water mark of the agency's development. Conway [End Page 751] effectively shows how the suspension of the Apollo program and the ultimate mixed success of the space shuttle permitted NASA scientists to take leadership roles in climate change and ozone depletion. The interest in ozone depletion began for practical reasons, according to Conway, because the agency worried that the shuttle and solid rocket boosters might be a contributing factor. Although it was eventually calculated that the shuttle's exhaust had only a trivial effect on ozone depletion, the concern allowed NASA leaders to secure a mandate for the nation's stratospheric ozone research.
During the 1980s, NASA's increasingly visible role in atmospheric research made it a target of the business-friendly and budget-conscious (civilian budget–conscious, that is) Reagan administration. A series of deep budget cuts forced the agency's scientists to prioritize and eliminate field experiments. Critics claimed that gigantism infected NASA's efforts to construct an Earth Observing System. Further complicating the situation, planetary scientists became interested in the atmospheric consequences of a nuclear war. Their conclusions about "nuclear winter" drew criticism from the Reagan administration and conservative cold warriors, who came to view NASA and its meteorological research with suspicion. The constraints placed on the agency during the Reagan era grew worse under George W. Bush's presidency. In a wonderful understatement, Conway notes that "the political climate in Washington became extremely hostile to climate science" (p. 276). Unfortunately, the political tide turned against NASA even as researchers began to fully exploit all the technologies and models developed in the preceding decades.
Though Conway covers a broad range of material, he focuses on NASA's atmospheric research, examining the scientific rationale behind experiments, the technological innovations, and the policy wars that derailed the agency's scientists. The book is dense at times with details and explanations that distract from the overall focus. But there are sections that shine brilliantly. Conway's chapters on the intersection of planetary explorations and research on Earth's atmosphere clearly show how this led directly to the realization that atmospheric chemistry was far more complex than anticipated in the past. His last chapter leaves one wanting more analysis of the consequences of the Bush administration's policies, and more insight into the disinformation campaign waged against atmospheric research. Atmospheric Science at NASA not only analyzes the scientific and technical development of an overlooked field but also shows how scientific discoveries and policies contribute to long-term social consequences. Although challenging at times, it should serve as a foundational work for further historical study of governmental science policy and for future research into the meteorological sciences. [End Page 752]
Dr. Krupar is an associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati.