An artist's conception shows the Orbiting Carbon Observatory in flight.
A failed launch is never good news, but today's loss of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory is particularly bad news for a space agency in transition.
The $280 million mission, which apparently went awry due to an equipment malfunction, would have been the perfect showcase for NASA's changing priorities under the Obama administration. The satellite would have provided fresh insights into how carbon is taken out of the atmosphere - and could have led to better climate forecasts as well as new strategies for easing climate shifts.
President Obama and his aides have stressed climate policy as a top scientific priority - for example, during the Senate confirmation hearing for his science adviser-designate, Harvard physicist John Holdren. Holdren called climate change "the most demanding of all environmental challenges in terms of what will be required of science and technology in order to bring it under control."
In the past, NASA's leadership has faced criticism for shifting funds from space science to human spaceflight. (Remember the flap that erupted when Administrator Michael Griffin said he wasn't sure climate change was "a problem we must wrestle with"?) Scientists also took the Bush White House to task in 2007 for a worrisome decline in the nation's network of Earth-watching satellites.
The prospects have brightened since then: Last year, President Bush proposed a $1.1 billion increase in spending on weather and climate monitoring over five years. Obama's stimulus package provided an extra $400 million for NASA science, with the bulk of that money going to climate research missions. In the latest version of a House omnibus spending bill, the science category would get the biggest chunk of NASA's $17.8 billion budget - with the subcategory for Earth science right on top.
NASA transition team members had been hoping they could point to the Orbital Carbon Observatory as a success story. Now the launch failure is just one more issue for the agency's next administrator to deal with.
"It comes at a particularly bad time for NASA, in terms of its uncertainty about the direction where it wants to go," said John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
At the same time, the impact of today's setback shouldn't be overexaggerated. After all, failures come with the territory anytime you're talking about spaceflight. "It is the nature of this business that the reliability of these systems is not 100 percent," Logsdon said.
In other words, stuff happens.
Shifts happen as well: This week, Obama is laying out his plans for future federal spending, and in the days ahead, Holdren should be confirmed as science adviser. The next steps on the science and technology front should include firming up the administration's policies on energy and the environment as well as on space spending.
One high-profile space policy report has urged NASA to boost programs with energy/environment payoffs, even if that means restructuring the human spaceflight program. That has stirred up a fresh round of debate over the space agency's vision. The big picture will eventually have to be sorted out by Obama's yet-to-be-named space chief and a yet-to-be-formed National Space Council.
Who will the next NASA administrator be? That guessing game has been going on for weeks, focusing at various times on three retired military men: Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles, Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration and Marine Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden Jr. (who is also an ex-astronaut).
The rumor mill has churned out other names, including that of Steve Isakowitz, the Department of Energy's chief financial officer (and a former NASA official). But there may be still other prospects as well, and it's not clear when Obama will make his choice. "He's got a few other things to worry about," Logsdon deadpanned.