When people think of NASA, they might think of rovers on Mars, astronauts floating aboard the International Space Station, or probes veering out to the edge of the solar system. They might not necessarily link NASA with climate research and observations. But Earth is a planet, too, and NASA is one of the biggest players in the Earth science arena, with broad expertise on observing our climate, especially from the vantage point of space. Today it spends over a billion dollars a year doing Earth science and has more than a dozen satellites in orbit around the planet watching the ocean, land, ice, atmosphere, and biosphere.
NASA has been studying Earth since its first weather satellite (TIROS) launched in 1960. It was also a time when people were beginning to realize that our climate could change relatively fast, on the scale of the human lifespan. Today, we know that our climate is changing rapidly and that humans are a key part of that change. NASA continues to launch new satellite missions and is also relying on aircraft (manned and unmanned), as well as scientists on the ground, to take vital measurements of things like snowpack and hurricanes, augmenting the big-picture view we get from space.
NASA’s role is to make observations of our Earth system that can be used by the public, researchers, and policymakers and to support strategic decisions. Its job is to do rigorous science. However, the agency does not promote particular climate policies.