An Earthzine Conversation With Michael H. Freilich

Michael H. Freilich, NASA Director for Earth Science. (Credit: David Reinert, Oregon State University.)

Michael H. Freilich, NASA Director for Earth Science. (Credit: David Reinert, Oregon State University.)

Michael Freilich has said that his primary objective as Director of NASA’s Earth Science Division is to expand NASA’s leading role in Earth system science by reinvigorating its portfolio of flight missions, speeding the transition to operational satellite systems, and expanding research, technology development, and education. A multiyear survey of Earth observation needs issued last year by the National Research Council showed just how big a job that is. NASA’s Earth Science and Applications budget dropped approximately 30 percent in constant dollars from 2000 to 2007. NRC decadal study co-chair Berrien Moore, Director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire, declared upon the report’s release that, “At a time of unprecedented need, the nation’s Earth observation satellite programs, once the envy of the world, are in disarray.”

Yet importance of understanding our planet continues to increase. Dr. Freilich is no stranger to the challenges facing Earth observation. A professor in physical oceanography at Oregon State University, Freilich is an expert in remote sensing of ocean surface winds and waves. He has served as associate Dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State; chaired the National Research Council’s Committee on Earth Studies; and was principal investigator on the NASA satellite QuikScat, launched in 1999, which uses a high-frequency microwave instrument called SeaWinds to measure the speed and direction of winds over the world’s oceans.

Given NASA’s multiple priorities, including costly human space flight and exploration and its current hypersensitivity to cost overruns, is it realistic for Earth observers to hope for the kind of robust investment needed to understand Earth’s systems and anticipate the changes coming? Earthzine contributor Peter Fairley recently discussed this dilemma with Dr. Freilich in his office at NASA headquarters.


Earthzine: I told my Dad I was coming to interview NASA’s Director of Earth Sciences and he replied: “Earth Science at NASA? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Is that perception a challenge for you at NASA?

Freilich: No. NASA has always been a leader in developing the technology for exploring this planet just like all the other planets. This just happens to be one where we have a launch window every day. NASA is not getting out of the Earth observation business. Far to the contrary, especially with the Earth Science Initiative in President’s budget request for fiscal year 2009. That’s almost $600 million in new money for looking at this planet.

Earthzine: We want to learn more about that initiative and your projects. But let’s start with the challenges you are seeking to address. You are an expert in ocean wind and wave measurement and analysis. How, in your view as an Earth scientist, is the Earth changing and how must Earth science respond to that?

Freilich: The challenge is understanding the Earth as an integrated system. We have moderately mature understandings of many of Earth’s basic processes. To understand Earth as a system is to understand the linkages between the processes. Take ocean vector winds. I’ve devoted a lot of my intellectual effort over the last quarter century to developing and exploiting measurements of wind speed and direction over the ocean. But wind or any other single process is not the answer. What we’re looking for is how the motions of the atmosphere drive the motions of the ocean. The atmosphere carries half the heat flux from the tropics to the poles, and the oceans carry the other half. To understand the energy balance of the Earth you have to understand all of the different processes.

Earthzine: What is NASA’s role in finding the links?

Michael Freilich (left) testifying on NASA’s budget before the House Science and Technology Committee’s subcommittee on space and aeronautics in 2007. (Credit: House Science and Technology Committee)

Michael Freilich (left) testifying on NASA’s budget before the House Science and Technology Committee’s subcommittee on space and aeronautics in 2007. (Credit: House Science and Technology Committee)

Freilich: Many Earth processes are global in extent but have small scale local variability. They are important over long periods of time, but have short timescale variability. How do you get the big picture with high resolution in both space and time? In many cases the only way to do that is from the vantage point of space. Satellites can make measurements over the entire globe but with high resolution. They can make frequent measurements for relatively long periods of time.

NASA operates 14 Earth-observing spacecraft and there’s a variety of other missions from other agencies as well as international missions. It’s almost a golden age of Earth observation. These many missions flying at the same time are giving us, for the first time, the fodder for assembling an integrated view of the Earth. NASA also codifies our quantitative understanding in models which can be used for prediction. Our research and analysis program synthesizes the measurements and gives us the global printout.

Earthzine: How does someone steeped in Earth science find themselves sitting in your chair?

Freilich: I’ve been working with NASA for my own ends since 1983 when I decided it was really important that we be able to measure wind speed and direction over the ocean. I get tremendous satisfaction from convincing lots of different people and organizations to move in the same direction and do something bigger than any of them could have done individually. When the opportunity to come here arose I figured that I would have some fun doing it and that it was really important, given the perceived importance of Earth science and applications right now. It was always important but now it’s known to be important, and therefore we have to do it well! Also, I felt that I would lose credibility with myself if I said: “You have a very important job and you must do it well and no I’m not interested in it”. I’d have had trouble shaving and looking in the mirror at that person.

Earthzine: In 2007 the National Research Council issued its report Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond. This “decadal survey” was supposed to provide a consensus roadmap for setting future priorities in Earth observation. Did it succeed?

Freilich: Absolutely.

Earthzine: How important is that roadmap given the current funding climate?

Freilich: Mankind has limited resources. We can either bemoan that fact or we can use our knowledge and judgment to determine which things ought to be done first. The decadal survey marks the first time that the Earth science and applications communities have attempted to set priorities in a meaningful, thoughtful and substantive way. Nobody got everything they wanted and yet there were no giant holes. It has been fantastically instrumental in what we’re doing.

Earthzine: Can we meet the Earth observation needs identified in the survey with today’s budgets? Does selecting between the projects being proposed feel like triage?

Freilich: The nation has to set some sort of balance between fairly disparate activities, all of which are critical. We’re doing the best we can with what we have and I think we’re doing a remarkable job. NASA is the envy of the rest of the world and the other agencies in the area of Earth observation and analysis. We’re flying 14 missions that are telling us the trajectory that the Earth system is on. We have seven missions in development that we call decadal survey precursors that are due for launch between June of this year, with the Ocean Surface Topography Mission, all the way out to 2013-2014 when the global precipitation mission launches. We’ve identified two new missions called for in the decadal survey and have more coming. Things don’t look that bad.

Earthzine: The authors of the decadal survey felt differently when the NRC released the study early last year. They said the Earth observing satellite programs were “in disarray” and that federal spending was “totally inadequate” to deliver on the survey’s recommendations. How much of a difference will the Earth Science Initiative make by shifting $570 million to Earth science from NASA’s solar, planetary and space science programs?

Freilich: When it’s passed by Congress that initiative will allow us over the next five years to start five new missions called for in the decadal survey. We’ve announced two already: the SMAP or Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, starting in 2009 and launching in 2012; and ICESAT-II (the second Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite), also starting in 2009 and launching in 2015. There will be a third mission with competitively-selected, scientist-led instruments, which nominally will start in 2010 for a launch no earlier than 2014. Then there are two other high priority missions identified by the decadal survey: CLARIO to measure Earth radiation and total solar irradiance and Destiny, which uses synthetic aperture radar to study ice and land processes and vegetation and ecosystems. I consider that to be progress.

Earthzine: The decadal survey’s recommendations assumed the existence of a suite of climate instruments on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). NPOESS subsequently ran over budget and those instruments were cut. What impact did that have?

Freilich: Essentially we lost the transition of many climate-focused instruments from NASA, the research agency, into NPOESS, the nation’s long-term data acquisition system. It’s critical to have on-orbit overlap of satellite instruments. If you put up the next instrument after the first one has died and it measures a different level, you don’t know if the level has actually changed. To get absolute calibration accuracy you put two of them up and you make sure that they’re giving the same answer.

Earthzine: What progress have you made in restoring the instruments cut from NPOESS and thus salvaging the relevance of the NRC’s recommendations?

Freilich: NASA and NOAA, led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, have been working on this since the NPOESS climate sensors were cut in June 2006. In January 2007 NASA and NOAA delivered an impact report which then allowed us to prioritize what we wanted to ’re-manifest’, and we’ve succeeded in several areas.

NASA and NOAA re-manifested two instruments on the NPOESS Preparatory Program (NPP), which is a NASA research mission set to launch in 2010 to serve as a bridge between NASA research and NPOESS. One is the so called OMPS LIM the ozone measurement and profiling suite which is critical for monitoring ozone recovery in response to the Montreal protocols. NOAA and NASA split it 50/50 from our core funding. And NASA and NOAA have a plan approved for NPP to fly a CERES instrument, which provides critical measurements of radiation balance in the Earth. We’re flying four CERES instruments right now on two NASA research missions, Terra and Aqua. We have a long time series of those measurements and the idea is to continue it without a break.

We have also developed a plan for total solar irradiance measurements, which are another key part of the energy balance since knowing how much energy is coming in is halfway to determining the balance. NASA will fly an irradiance instrument on the Glory spacecraft, which is going to launch in the first part of 2009. So of the five high-priority measurements that were demanifested we’ve got three taken care of.

Earthzine: And the other two?

Freilich: Altimetry measurement of ocean surface topography is one. NASA and the French space agency CNES are launching a mission in June to continue precision nadir altimetry. The last one is the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS), which measures the distribution and scattering properties of aerosols. The Glory mission will also fly the first APS instrument.

Earthzine: NASA is moving ahead with the Soil Moisture Active Passive or SMAP mission. How will SMAP complement SMOS, the European Space Agency’s Soil Moisture Ocean Salinity mission?

Freilich: The missions are mutually supporting. SMAP carries an active measurement, the L-Band Radar, as well as the passive radiometer that is common to both SMAP and SMOS. The active measurement provides significantly higher resolution, which is key to soil moisture.

Earthzine: GEO secretariat director José Achache told Earthzine in a recent interview that a raison d’être for GEO was avoiding what he saw as the ”huge duplication” that characterized satellite mission planning in the past. He specifically cited three sets of overlapping missions, including SMAP (previously called Hydros) and SMOS.

Freilich: It is very difficult to make measurements with the frequency that is absolutely necessary from a single spacecraft. When an instrument on a satellite is measuring over here it isn’t measuring somewhere else on Earth. So having multiple spacecraft measuring the same thing improves the science. We’re getting better coverage. And as I pointed out with the soil moisture missions: each one of these missions tends to have a unique feature or several key features associated with it. They are not duplicative.

That said, since I came into this job I’ve grown to have much greater appreciation for the Committee on Earth Observing Satellites (CEOS), which is the satellite coordination end of GEO. That is an increasingly effective and quite useful organization to help us avoid unnecessary duplication.

Earthzine: Are you satisfied with the direction and pace of developments towards GEOSS?

Freilich: International coordination is challenging. International organizations that try to tell a country what to do are doomed to failure or at least to tremendous frustration. What I like about GEOSS is that it attempts to establish frameworks and fora for the ’implementers’ to get together and make the decisions. It’s facilitating, not prescriptive or regulatory.

Earthzine: NASA is increasing its education and outreach activities. Do you see connecting the dots for public as the key to securing funds for Earth observing missions?

Freilich: We’re not doing it just to get the funds. The knowledge that we get from the measurements we make has direct impact on peoples’ lives. The responsibility we have is not just to say there’s a direct impact but to make sure that people really understand and can use the information that we provide.

Earthzine: Looking to the future, are you satisfied with the direction NASA is going in? Eric Barron, Dean of Geosciences at the University of Texas, predicted in testimony before a House subcommittee last summer that, “we will enter the next decade with an [Earth] observing system that is substantially less capable than we had at the start of the 21st century.” Will he be right, or will NASA prove him wrong?

Freilich: I told you about the missions that we have in development, that are launching out starting this year. You see the missions that we’re flying right now. We have the Earth sciences initiative. If I was terminally pessimistic I would not be in this job. I would go back to doing real work in the university.

Earthzine: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to Earthzine.

Freilich: I appreciate you coming down.