NASA is getting ready for the Biden administration’s expected boost in climate science research, the agency’s acting head told POLITICO on Tuesday.
Steve Jurczyk, who worked at NASA for more than three decades before becoming acting administrator last month, said he will have a better idea of the Biden administration’s space priorities at the end of this month, when the White House gives NASA feedback on its fiscal 2022 budget request that was drafted under the prior administration.
But from early conversations with the White House, NASA is already reviewing its Earth science portfolio for ways to pick up the pace.
“We’re just taking a look at our Earth science decadal survey … and the missions that would get to make those measurements to particularly support climate research and looking at how we might accelerate those,” Jurczyk said in an interview. “We’re doing some preparatory work expecting that that’s going to be a request when we hear back from the OMB on the pass back.”
One program that could potentially be accelerated is the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder program, which measures sunlight reflected by the Earth more accurately than existing tools to improve climate models.
“[There will be] more conversations around exactly what we’re going to accelerate there, but the CLARREO Pathfinders is an example of something that I know will move forward,” he said.
Jurczyk also talked about his priorities as acting administrator and upcoming NASA missions.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What are your priorities for the agency?
My primary focus is going to be on keeping our programs on track, particularly the major programs … that come to me for review and approval. We have a lot to accomplish this year across all all the mission areas. … That obviously starts Thursday with safely landing the Perseverance rover on Mars along with the Ingenuity helicopter. That’s followed a couple of days later by a Northrop Grumman cargo flight to the station. We’re evaluating the Boeing second uncrewed test flight on the Commercial Crew. Right now it’s no earlier than March 25. Then we have the Crew-2 mission to station, [which is] the second operational mission for SpaceX on a commercial crew no earlier than April 20. I believe we have six launches this year across the four areas in the science mission director.
Of course, the most critical to us is the James Webb Space Telescope. That team has done an amazing job keeping integration and test of the observatory moving forward, given the challenges with Covid. They’re still on track for the end of October launch. … My focus is going to be to keep those important missions and those important milestones over the coming months, while continuing to protect the health and safety of our workforce because … it will be a while before we’re on the other side of Covid.
Have you made any changes yet to reflect the Biden administration’s plans for NASA?
That’s coming. We’ve had some initial discussions, but I think the first real direction we’re going to get is when the White House and the Office of Management and Budget give us a pass back for the [fiscal 2022] budget. We worked through the reconciliation process to develop our [fiscal 2022] president’s budget request. OMB has told us we should expect a pass back at the end of February. I think that’ll be our first indication as to the priorities for the new administration and the changes we need to make through our [fiscal 2022] initial proposal that we submitted to the previous administration in September.
Many expect an increased focus on climate science and on diversity in STEM. Have there been any changes yet?
Not yet, although you’re exactly right. Those are the priorities we’re hearing our discussion with the new administration, so there’s no surprise there. We’re just taking a look at our Earth science decadal survey … and the missions that would get to make those measurements to particularly support climate research and looking at how we might accelerate those.
We’re doing some preparatory work expecting that that’s going to be a request when we hear back from the OMB on the pass back.
Our office of STEM engagement is continually looking not only at the programs that they manage that get appropriated to our STEM budget line in our appropriations, but also working on a tremendous amount of activities across all of the mission directorates. … We have been, and we’re going to continue to move towards an agency-level integrated plan for engaging everyone from [K-12] through post-graduate. I think that’s going to be important moving forward with the new administration.
Any specific programs from the decadal survey that are candidates to accelerate?
We expect missions like the [Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory] Pathfinder to be moving forward. … We’ve been making Earth radiation budget measurements since 1984, I believe. So we have this multi-decadal record of the Earth’s radiation balance, what’s coming in from the sun, what’s being reflected off the top of the atmosphere and what’s being trapped in the system.
CLARREO Pathfinder is an instrument that’s going to make multi-spectral, spectrally resolved measurements of that energy coming off the top of the atmosphere, which will help remove uncertainties in climate models, as well as improve our understanding of the Earth’s energy balance. That’s just an example of one mission that will most likely be supported by the administration moving forward.
We’ll look at measurements and instruments and missions where we can get data to improve our modeling, reduce uncertainties in modeling, and that will provide information to help policy makers establish good policy and work with our international partners on agreements. Then we’ll use those measurements to verify the effectiveness of those policies. [There will be] more conversations around exactly what we’re going to accelerate there, but the CLARREO Pathfinders is an example of something that I know will move forward.
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