Cloudy Horizon for Eyes in the Sky

September 18, 1991

Space watchers, take note: that majestic TV picture of the Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite lifting away from the space shuttle Discovery may be one of the last such sights this century.

Some scientists fear the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has opted out of the space race. Large vehicles such as the seven-ton Atmospheric Research Satellite outperform smaller ones as platforms for sophisticated instruments, they say, and carry larger fuel supplies for maneuvering. NASA's new orientation, hammered out recently in tense meetings, is toward smaller, less feature-laden satellites, fired aloft by less costly, expendable launch vehicles.

This policy change had long been urged by scientists whose projects were not included in plans for the large vehicles. Fearful of tight budgets and a Congress less inclined to pay for space spectaculars when a restive public sees priorities badly neglected on the ground, these researchers consistently criticized "big science" as wasteful.

The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, designed to perform the first detailed exam of the effects of pollution on the upper atmosphere, was planned long before NASA began this policy shift. Its sensors will be at work while another series of environmental satellites, intended to provide a broader analysis of human effects on the biosphere, is downsized. Still, the latest satellite couldn't have reached orbit at a better time.

While space scientists have been wrangling over vehicle and project priorities, environmental needs have been heating up. In June, an intergovernmental panel began developing "targets and timetables" to limit carbon dioxide. This greenhouse gas, with the ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, will come under increasing scrutiny as the committee holds its last meeting in Rio De Janeiro next year.

Efforts to limit carbon dioxide growth collide with developing countries' desires for rapid industrialization, developed countries' growth and the economic needs of various energy-producing regions. Estimates by the International Energy Agency show world energy use, reported as equivalent petroleum demand, will rise from 1989's 8.7 billion tons to more than 10 billion tons by 1995. Arguments over how this energy use will be allocated among countries, industries and energy sources will dominate debate. Atmospheric studies by satellites of all kinds will become increasingly important. Having an eye in the sky to track such pollution problems is a step in the right direction.

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