When you actually looked at it [Global Habitability], it was a very good idea, just packaged terribly.

UNISPACE II or UNISPACE 82 (United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space 1982), which was held in Vienna from 9 to 21 August 1982, was attended by 94 Member States and 45 intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. Its purpose was to address the concerns of how to maintain the outer space for peaceful purposes and prevent an arms race in outer space as essential conditions for peaceful exploration and use of outer space. The Conference’s focus was also on strengthening the United Nations’ UNOOSA Programme on Space Applications, to promote international cooperation, increase opportunities for developing countries to participate in educational and training activities in space science and technology and enable the building of human and institutional capacities for exploiting the immense potential of space technology for socio-economic development.

Stump from Mongolia: Unispace 82 – Vienna 9-21 August 1982 – Sputnik 1 – 4.10.1957 – First satellite in Orbit

A few days after the Woods Hole workshop, Kenneth S. Pedersen, Director of the International Affairs in NASA, expressed an interest in presenting the Global Habitability initiative at the UNISPACE 82. The idea was that NASA could use Global Habitability to its advantage, demonstrating not only NASA’s interest in conducting global scale Earth studies but also its interest in international scientific collaboration. Despite President Reagan’s Science Advisor,  George A. Keyworth II scepticism about the value of the Global Habitability program, recognising the political capital to be made out of presenting the program at the conference, particularly in view of the criticism which the United States expected from representatives of developing countries for its military activities in space ( from March 1980, NASA and the Defense Department had reached an agreement that gave the space military priority), the U.S. Department of State agreed to take Global Habitability to Unispace 82.

In Vienna, James M. Beggs said that the last 25 years have been characterized by extraordinary achievement in space-based activities and was not exaggeration to say that humanity was on the verge of becoming a space-faring civilization. Space technology was the most important tool to study the Earth system and understand those trends which influence Earth’s habitability. The “perspective of outer space could help all countries to better anticipate and cope with natural disasters,” he added, illustrating the value of the weather satellites in storm warning when they helped to track the extremely dangerous hurricane Carla, bearing down on the Gulf Coast, in 1961.  Warnings led to the evacuation of more than 350,000 people.

But the reaction to the programme, which was dubbed “Project Habitat”, was not the one that James Beggs and the United States expected.  An official from the United Nations Environment Program, which already ran its own Global Environmental Monitoring Systems, argued that there were dangers in allowing any one nation too much control over the collection of data and the coordination of research. “Any one nation can do its own thing, but the results will be more effective if it is done through the U.N. system” he said.  Scientists, members of international organisations, although they recognised the value of Global Habitability, saw it as a threat to the existing global programmes, and criticized NASA’s leadership.


In the meantime, in the U.S., Global Habitability was seen as an attempt to grab congressional funds away from other science agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NOAA.  Despite the lack of clear political and other support on such a program, Richard Goody and his collaborators continued to explore the issue, but NASA backed off, and by the autumn of 1982 “Global Habitability” had a very low profile.  The first effort to establish a truly global scientific programme that could assess and investigate climate change had failed.

In 1977, President Carter commissioned The Global 2000 Report to the President. Its purpose was to study possible future trends such as global warming, energy scarcity, and explosive human population growth in contrast with Earth’s finite resources.

There were several reasons for this failure. Monitoring from space sounded bizarre and radical to politicians who were used to more conventional ways of research, such as the ground-based studies. Also, a few people in the White House compared “Global Habitability” to President Jimmy Carter’s “Global 2000” report, which predicted a deteriorated future for the planet and which the Reagan Administration was trying to diminish its importance.

A second reason, form the political point of view, was NASA’s inability to define clearly the objectives of the programme.  At the beginning of the 1980s the economic and policy choices have reached a turning point in the United States. In July 1979, Paul Volcker, ‘a chairman with unusual ability to provide intellectual leadership’, who ‘constantly questioning and probing’ and ‘leaves the distinct impression of a man more comfortable in greater obscurity’ according to New York Times, took command at the U.S. Federal Reserve, and within a few months dramatically changed the monetary policy.  Volcker, who was chairman until 1987, was often called the second most powerful person in the United States. Ronald Reagan, who was elected President in 1981,  set a course to revitalise the economy of the United States by adding Volker’s ideas, to  his own beliefs about market and private sector deregulation.

Paul Volcker
Source: Wikipedia

On a statement released on April 16th 1981, President Reagan declared that it wastime to put a halt to the “national scandal of waste, fraud and abuse” and he was determined to cut programmes that he believed the country did not need. According to NASA the Global Habitability programme would cost a total of $1.7 billion dollars per year. For such a cost the President and the Congress would expect same practical results for taxpayers’ money, for example, knowledge about future climate that could be used to assess (in monetary terms) the probable societal consequences of anthropogenic activities. What NASA and the Global Habitability Executive Committee offered instead was a curiosity – driven research programme, were academic objectives clearly overweighed the societal objectives.

But the most important reason, as Dixon Butler of NASA admitted, was that the agency had not advanced the proposal tactfully. “NASA moved out on global habitability prematurely, without having developed a collegial understanding across government and with international agencies to back it”. Due to NASA’s proven success in space applications and operations, the agency’s managers felt confident that they will achieve their goal. But the agency’s attitude had seen by many – scientists and politicians – as arrogant and it came across like NASA was trying to take over the world.”

At the end, NASA had no other option but to retreat. But it did succeed in initiating a debate about the state of the Earth and the need to understand and investigate Global Climate Change. The scientific merits of the Global Habitability programme were undeniable and as one of the programme supporters said: “When you actually looked at it, it was a very good idea, just packaged terribly.”

Despite the disappointed outcome the Goody report was a remarkable document. Not only it raised awareness about the environmental challenges that human actions would bring to the habitability of the planet, but also warned that there is no escape. Humans did not have the luxury of moving to another planet. They had to live with the consequences of their actions. The Global Habitability report was also the first to indicate the magnitude and the complexity of the science that govern the system Earth and state that only an interdisciplinary research program of global scope could generate the necessary knowledge to respond to climate changes. Despite the difficulties to accomplish a programme of such a scale, the advancements in science and technology – notably in space and computational technology – could make such a venture feasible.

For these reasons the concept of global habitability had prompted interest both inside and outside of NASA and quietly kept going because many members of the scientific community had endorsed it and because it had found supporters among a few politicians, most notably the Senator Al Gore.[24] NASA officials keep promote it, but this time they followed a different approach. They encouraged a strong ecumenical spirit and established NASA as the first between equals player in global climate change research.


Sources and further Reading
  1. UNISPACE Conferences, http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/aboutus/history/unispace.html (last access on 01/01/2018)
  2. Kenneth S. Pedersen, ‘Global Habitability as a U.S. Initiative at Unispace 82’ Memorandum, 1st July 1982, Document IV-1 inside the [J.M Logsdom “Exploring the Unknown: Selected documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program” Volume VI: Space and Earth Science, NASA SP-2004-4407], 475
  3. Wayne Diddle, Military’s Role in Space (Special to the New York Times), New York Times,  December 21, 1984 http://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/21/us/military-role-in-space.html
  4. David. Dickson, “U.N. Space Conference Ends in Compromise”, Science, New Series, Vol. 217, No. 4563. (3 September, 1982). 915-916.
  5. Unispace’82, “A Context for International Cooperation and Competition – A Technical Memorandum” March 1983, Congress of the United States, Office of the Technology Assessment.
  6. James M.Beggs, ‘Memorandum and program description to George A. Keyworth II’, Document IV-3 inside the [J.M Logsdom “Exploring the Unknown: Selected documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program” Volume VI: Space and Earth Science, NASA SP-2004-4407,1982], 497-498
  7. Hughes Patrick, “Weather Satellites come of Age”, Weatherwise 37, April 1984, pp 68-75).
  8. James M. Beggs, “Unispace 82 held in Vienna: Ambassador Beggs’ Statement”, August 10, 1982, Department of State Bulletin, Vol.83, ISSN 0041-7610 (February 1983),69
  9. Jeffrey M., Lenorovitz, “Conference Studies Space Usage”, Aviation Week & Space Technology, (August 16, 1982),17
  10. W.H., Lambright, “Administrative Entrepreneurship and Space Technology: The ups and Downs of “Mission to Planet Earth”, Public Administration Review, 54,(2) (March- April, 1994), 99
  11. M. Mitchell Waldrop, “An inquiry into the state of the Earth”, Science, 226 (4670) (October 5, 1984), 34
  12. James M. Beggs , James Begg’s reply to George A. Keyworth, Science Advisor to the President, 503
  13. Steven Rattner,  A Look Inside Paul Volker’s FED, New York Times, May 3, 1981 http://www.nytimes.com/1981/05/03/business/a-look-inside-paul-volcker-s-fed.html?pagewanted=all
  14. David Harvey, “ A brief History of Neoliberalism”, (Oxford University Press, 2005), 23
  15. James Tobin , “Monetary Policy”  Library of Economics and Liberty”, <http://www.econlib.org/LIBRARY/Enc/MonetaryPolicy.html>  (25/09/2007)
  16. Ronald Reagan,  “Statement on Actions Taken Against Waste, Fraud, and Abuse in the Federal Government” 16 April, 1981. The American Presidency Project <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=43700>  (25/09/2007)
  17. Richard Goody, “Observing and thinking about the Atmosphere”, Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, 27 (2002), 15
  18. J. Perry, ‘Global Change: From Rhetoric to Reality’. Reviews of Geophysics, Supplement, April 1991, pp. 39
  19. D. Kennedy, “The U.S. Government and Global Environmental Change Research: Ideas and Agendas”, (Case C16-92-1121.0, John F. Kennedy School of Government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University,1992), 4-5
  20. Featured Image Credit: NASA