Equilibrium & Sustainability

NASA welcomes chief scientist, senior climate adviser in new dual role

NASA/Bill Ingalls

Connecting NASA’s plethora of problem-solvers through the common thread of climate science will be critical to the mission of the agency’s brand new chief scientist and senior climate adviser, Dr. Katherine Calvin. 

“Like many people, my introduction to NASA was through movies,” Calvin told reporters in a Tuesday morning teleconference. “I remember watching Apollo 13 years ago and being amazed at how NASA scientists work together.” 

“As someone with a background in math, computer science and engineering, I was inspired by seeing women in STEM help launch a man into orbit in Hidden Figures,” she continued. “NASA shows us what happens when you bring together a team of really smart people to explore the universe and solve problems. I’m excited to be a part of that.”

Calvin assumed the dual roles of NASA chief scientist and senior climate adviser on Monday — serving as principal adviser to the administrator and other NASA leaders, while representing the agency’s strategic science objectives to the national and international space communities, according to a news release from NASA. Her principal interest, she told reporters, involves “trying to connect the climate science research with the rest of the research in NASA.”

“We have created this new position of a dual role of chief scientist and senior climate advisor. We’ve chosen to elevate this senior climate adviser position,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, noting that the position will help “harmonize and coordinate” science activity among mission directorates. 

Some of the specific initiatives that spark Calvin’s interest include exploring how the water recycling systems onboard the International Space Station might help reclaim water in communities battling drought on Earth, as well as how the Space Station’s carbon capture technologies might also apply to the planet on the ground, she said.

Calvin also discussed how NASA’s climate modeling capabilities could help pinpoint how different emissions scenarios impact the climate and air quality. On the aviation side, she said, NASA is continuing to work on reducing fuel use throughout the sector.

Another key initiative both Calvin and Nelson brought up is NASA’s Earth System Observatory, which Nelson said will involve the deployment of five observatories over the next decade. The system, launched in May 2021, aims to create a 3D, holistic view of the Earth by incorporating multiple satellites to provide information on climate change, disaster mitigation, forest fires and real-time agricultural processes, according to a NASA release

“These observatories are going to give us a 3D, holistic view of what is exactly happening to the climate, as we measure very precisely what is happening to the land and to the seas and to the ice and to the atmosphere,” Nelson said. “NASA really is the point of the spear when it comes to climate change.” 

But to maintain its leadership on climate, space and aeronautics, NASA needs both consistency and funding, Nelson added, expressing confidence that Congress is going to come to a bipartisan agreement on fiscal year 2022 funding for the agency. 

“I sometimes am amazed that when you think of NASA, folks don’t understand just how involved in science we are and specifically climate change,” Nelson told reporters.

On the first day of hurricane season, for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency invited NASA to the table alongside other relevant agencies, he said.

“All of the instruments that are measuring what is happening to the climate, they’re done by NASA,” Nelson added. “We design them, we build them, we launch them.”

In taking on the dual chief scientist and climate adviser roles on Monday, Calvin succeeded Jim Green, who retired as chief scientist on Jan. 1, and Gavin Schmidt, who served as acting senior climate adviser since the position’s creation in February 2021 — when NASA joined President Biden’s National Climate Task Force, the NASA news release said. Schmidt will maintain his role as director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. 

Previously, Calvin served as an earth scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Maryland, where she worked on the Institute’s Global Change Analysis Model — a system that explores the relationships between humans and Earth systems, the news release said. 

Going forward, Calvin told reporters that she is awaiting several upcoming missions, including the findings of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently traveling hundreds of millions of miles away from the Earth.

“Like many people, I woke up early on Christmas morning to watch the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope,” Calvin said. “It will start sending us images this summer, and we’ll be able to look back 13.5 billion years, to only 300 million years after the universe was formed. And so that’s really exciting to me.”

Tags Bill Nelson Joe Biden Kate Calvin NASA

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