Satellites provided a unique perspective on our changing planet. They enabled scientists to have an improved understanding of the Earth as a whole, integrated system.

The scientific community had also begun to recognise that Earth may have entered a new human-dominated geological epoch – now we call this epoch, Anthropocene, – that could affect global habitability. If humans were to live successfully with global change it was essential to have understanding of the overall Earth system, and identify these changes and their potential future effects on the planet and humans.

To discuss these issues NASA invited fifty scientists from a wide range of scientific disciplines such as chemistry, biology, physics and space science to participate in a workshop, on July 7, 1982, at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.  They formed an ad hoc committee headed by Richard Goody, a professor of planetary physics at Harvard University. Among the scientists in the committee were the: Wallace Broecker, Paul Crutzen, James Hansen, Lynn Margulis,  V. Ramanathan and others.

NASA’s associate administrator Hans Mark had already discussed with Richard Goody, the agency’s idea about an ambitious global climate programme, a large space mission to observe the earth system, and to explore the interactions between the major system components of the earth, how they have evolved, function, and how they may be expected to evolve on all time scale. Richard Goody was intrigued and he agreed to participate.

The outcome of the workshop at Woods Hole was a report titled Global Change: Impacts on Habitability – A Scientific Basis for Assessment” or the “Goody report” for short. In the executive summary the committee indicated that “The earth is a planet characterized by change, and has entered a unique epoch when one species, the human race, has achieved the ability to alter its environment on a global scale and to do so within a lifetime of an individual species member”.

Global Change: Impacts on Habitability. A Scientific Basis for Assessment. A Report by the Executive Committee of a Workshop held at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, June 21-26, 1982. Source: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19820025024.pdf

In the report, it was stressed that humans had become an important factor in the global cycles of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur, and could affect global and regional air quality and climate. Engineering and technology had made possible for humans to build massive structures and control the powerful hydrological cycle by altering the course of major rivers. Human’s actions had caused a major direct and indirect influence on the chemistry of the atmosphere, on the allocation of resources on land and oceans, and on global climate.

The scientists/members of the committee, were concerned that these global changes may affect the “ability of the planet to support communities of plants and animals, to produce adequate supplies of food, and to sustain and renew the quality of the air and water and the integrity of the chemical cycles essential for life”. They stressed that the problem is urgent in the sense that conditions are already been created and emphasised on the necessity of monitoring and assessing the increase of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, soil erosion, desertification, the diversion of freshwater resources and the rising levels of air pollutants. It was essential for the scientific community to understand the links and the interactions between earth’s three major components – ocean, atmosphere and biosphere – which on time scale of a decade function as an integrated system. Only then the scientists would be able to recommend responses and offer “a basis from which policy decisions could be made addressing the questions of change, either natural or of human origin, affecting the habitability of the earth and the integrity of the earth”.

The Committee proposed a ten-year international interdisciplinary research programme, relying heavily on space-based technology  on looking at the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere (ice and snow fields), land, sun, and the interactions between them. The committee emphasized on the programme’s rationality and feasibility and argued that NASA, because of the agency’s skills and capability on managing space technology and its experience in interdisciplinary project management, was the most appropriate agency to successfully carry out a complex programme. And Global Change was a complex program; it required an interdisciplinary science research team to provide a global perspective and a view from space, necessary for integration on a global scale.

NASA’s Earth Observing System Dynamics Explorer 2 (DE 2). Source: NASA

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 United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE), which was taken place in Vienna, in August 1982. 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.

James Beggs and Hans Mark agreed to take Global Habitability to Unispace Conference. In an attempt to gain governmental support, Beggs sent the Global Habitability programme proposal and the Unispace White Paper to George A. Keyworth II, Science Advisor to the President Reagan, who expressed his scepticism about the value of the proposed program. But Beggs, an experienced and accomplished political operator, argued that “Global Habitability” will bring “knowledge upon which future decisions can be made” and it will absolutely “remain entirely under U.S. management and control.”

Finally, 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 current military activities in space, the U.S. Department of State agreed to take “Global Habitability” to Unispace82.

Finally, 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 current military activities in space, the U.S. Department of State agreed to take “Global Habitability” to Unispace82.


Sources and further reading:

  1. Richard Goody, “Global Change: Impacts on Habitability, A scientific Basis for Assessment”, 7 July 1982. Document IV-2 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], 478
  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. 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
  4. Hans Mark, “The Space Station”,  Duke University Press (December 1987),115).
  5. James M. Beggs , ‘James Begg’s reply to George A. Keyworth, Science Advisor to the President, July 1982”  Document IV-4 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], 502-503
  6. David. Dickson, “U.N. Space Conference Ends in Compromise”, Science, New Series, Vol. 217, No. 4563. (3 September, 1982). 915-916.
  7. Unispace’82, “A Context for International Cooperation and Competition – A Technical Memorandum” March 1983, Congress of the United States, Office of the Technology Assessment.
  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)