Just A Click Away
By Kathy Sawyer
The vice president's idea and, perhaps more important, his sense of urgency have triggered a scramble at NASA to make it happen inexpensively and fast.
Gore plans to unveil the project today at MIT, in a speech to be delivered at a technology conference. He conceived the project a month ago, officials say, and he hopes to see it launched by 2000.
The "all-Earth, all-the-time" images, to be transmitted from a small spacecraft stationed between Earth and the sun, would resemble the historic portrait of the fragile and isolated blue planet snapped by Apollo 17 astronauts the last men on the moon on Dec. 7, 1972, a picture that has become an icon. But the new version, capturing surface features as small as five miles square, would depict the motions of changing clouds, the advance of hurricanes, large-scale fires in oil fields or forests and other phenomena as they actually exist virtually at that same moment.
NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin said he hopes to keep the project's cost close to $20 million and definitely below $50 million, and will solicit commercial participation by a cable TV company, for example to lower the costs even further.
One earth scientist, upon hearing a description of the previously undisclosed project, said some experts may question the scientific value of the project, which has never been proposed through routine channels.
But Gore, who has a blow-up of the Apollo 17 image mounted on the wall of his office in the West Wing of the White House, said he is convinced the project will have scientific, educational and spiritual benefits.
"I believe there is tremendous scientific value in having constant live television pictures of the Earth. . . . With the entire hemisphere in view, fully lit by the sun, scientists will be able to analyze weather systems and cloud patterns in ways they cannot today," he said in an interview yesterday. "With global warming a growing concern, and with problems like El Niño causing growing concern, this will be of tremendous value."
Asrar R. Ghassem, NASA's chief of earth science, and others noted that no such full-Earth images are currently available, though much of the globe can be pieced together in a mosaic from existing satellite images, and the Galileo probe took some snapshots as it rounded Earth on its way to Jupiter.
The live Earth picture would be transmitted from a 330-pound spacecraft about five feet in diameter stationed 1 million miles out, orbiting the sun in tandem with Earth at the point where the sun's gravity exactly counterbalances that of Earth. Positioning the craft at that point will enable it to remain constantly aimed at the hemisphere of Earth that is in full sunlight and will minimize the need for engine firings to maintain its post.
Gore said he has suggested that the spacecraft be named Triana, after Rodrigo de Triana, the lookout on Columbus's ship who first sighted the New World. The ground station network, he said, could be called Earth-Span, "with apologies to C-SPAN."
The spacecraft is to be equipped with an eight-inch telescope and a three-color camera capable of twice the sharpness of high-definition TV, with the image to be "refreshed" every few minutes, Goldin said. Ground stations for the satellite are to be operated by university students, in keeping with the Clinton administration's push to increase interest in science and math.
Some of those familiar with the project acknowledged that there are many "unknowns" connected with the mission and that there might be some skepticism about its value. But they pointed out that, before the first geostationary satellites were placed high above Earth, no one predicted all the uses that would be made of them.
Gore, who has made protection of the global environment one of the core commitments of his political career, said he believes the Apollo program's "blue marble" images of Earth helped trigger the environmental movement. Of the new project, he said, "I believe it will have an inspirational value that's hard to describe."
Goldin said he first learned of the planned announcement only last Friday, when Gore phoned him just as the NASA administrator was finishing a speech in Houston. And that was just weeks after Gore first presented the idea to Goldin, in mid-February. "My head is still spinning," Goldin said.
After Friday, NASA added two more people to the four full-time employees working on the plan, he said. "They are on fire," he said. The team is trying to move quickly, he added, in keeping with Gore's wishes, but also hoping to avoid a "ready, shoot, aim" problem in racing the concept to implementation. Goldin emphasized that he hopes to bring the Republican-led Congress into the planning as soon as possible, within a few weeks.
Gore almost literally dreamed up the idea in his sleep about a month ago, waking at 3 a.m. one night, according to a White House official. Later that morning, Gore did about 20 minutes' worth of research on the Internet, called Goldin, and by that afternoon had a NASA team assembled at the White House to discuss the idea and begin working out engineering concepts.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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