NASA Administrator Bill Nelson Pushes Continued Climate Research & Aircraft Sustainability

Last Thursday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson joined a White House event to highlight some of the progress the space agency has been working on to combat climate change. Nelson is relatively new to the role of NASA Administrator, having been appointed by President Biden in May after former administrator Jim Bridenstine resigned. Nelson spoke mainly about NASA’s efforts to further sustainability in aviation by increasing fuel efficiency and reducing fuel emissions. “Our aeronautics researchers are developing and testing new green technologies for next generation aircraft, new automation tools for greener and safer airspace operations, and sustainable energy options for aircraft propulsion,” Nelson said.

The Administrator highlighted NASA’s bold plan to reduce aviation-related carbon emissions by over 3 billion gallons by 2030. The plan will be pushed in part by the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge (SAFGC), which aims to use public companies to hit this goal. The challenge also aims for sustainable fuel to take over 100% of aviation fuel demand by 2050. NASA also plans to work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to reduce carbon emissions and transition aircraft to more sustainable models. The two agencies plan to use the newly unveiled Sustainable Flight National Partnership to achieve these goals.

Launched in 1960, TIROS was NASA’s first weather satellite (credit: NASA)

Nelson’s talk is part of a broader focus at NASA towards combating climate change. The space agency has been studying the earth to some degree since the 1960s, which is when America’s first weather satellite, TIROS, was launched. However, until the 1970s, NASA was never tasked explicitly with studying the Earth’s climate. That burden fell upon agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Weather Bureau, which is now known as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). During this time period, NASA would develop satellites and research instruments that would be managed by the USGS and the Weather Bureau.

NASA’s priorities shifted in the ’70s, however, with Congress gutting the other two agencies. NASA inherited much of their focus in 1976, with congressional revision of the space act. This revision granted NASA with the ability to study ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere, giving the space agency enough precedent to study other climate issues. Since then, NASA has launched and managed many satellites with the explicit priority of monitoring changing factors related to the Earth’s climate.

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