“If Trump turns off the climate satellites,
California will launch its own damn satellites!”

— Gov. Jerry Brown

Gov. Jerry Brown is famous for thinking outside the box. He is always mentioned as one of the most intellectually gifted elected officials. He is a very bright bulb in the recently dimming political universe.

Therefore, it was remarkable that national and international media organizations barely reported Brown’s most sensational remarks in San Francisco last December as he addressed the world’s largest society of geophysicists — the American Geophysical Union. Brown touted California’s leadership in influencing the federal government by setting science-based standards in environmental policy, particularly related to Earth’s changing climate resulting from human activity. He stated, “We are the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world. We have a lot of firepower. We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the universities, we’ve got the national labs and we have the political clout and sophistication for the battle. We will persevere.”

Brown challenged recent actions of the incoming Trump administration which probed into the backgrounds of scientists who participated in conferences addressing human activity and climate change. He defiantly stated, “We’ll set the stage, we’ll set the example, and whatever Washington thinks they’re doing — California is the future. We are pioneering space, we’re pioneering honest science, and we are pioneering a politics that is committed to quality and sustainability.”

He then upped the ante, saying, “Some say that they are going to turn off the satellites that monitor climate. If Trump turns off the climate satellites, California will launch its own damn satellites. We’re going to collect that data!” 

Brown noted his role as president of the University of California Board of Regents and that UC manages the Lawrence and Livermore national laboratories. He said, “As long as the University of California manages those labs, we are not going to have political interference.”

Is JPL the fly in Brown’s ointment?

Unfortunately for Brown, most of the space-based climate science in California is done here in Pasadena at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL is not managed by UC but by Caltech, a privately incorporated institution.

JPL pioneered the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) spacecraft, which, under the direction of the late JPL Chief Scientist Mustafa Chahine, reported the association between atmospheric carbon dioxide plumes and their direct link to coal-burning power plants on the Earth. This work was so significant that it was presented to Congress by former Vice President Al Gore. JPL currently manages the AIRS follow-on activity, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. (Anyone can see the AIRS and OCO data at http://airs.jpl.nasa.gov/ and http://oco.jpl.nasa.gov/).

Would Caltech cower to Trump?

Through its history of managing JPL, Caltech as always been a willing supplicant to federal directives. During the McCarthy era, JPL’s first director, Theodore Von Karman, was harassed repeatedly, without Caltech support, for his youthful association with revolutionary activity in Hungary, his country of origin. Von Karman was the brains behind the Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO) rockets that enabled American aircraft to fly from aircraft carriers in the Pacific to bomb the Japanese heartland. Caltech also failed to support JPL’s second director, Frank Malina, when he was accused by witch hunters of the post-World War II period for his political activity while a Caltech student years earlier. Malina pioneered the Army’s WAC corporal rocket program, which first launched scientific payloads into the stratosphere. Malina fled to France where he lived in exile until his death in 1981.

Caltech’s subservience to federal witch hunters continued into the 21st century. Caltech even vindictively punished JPL employees long after the federal government had lost interest in them. In 2013, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) severely sanctioned Caltech for its persistent harassment of a group of employees, including myself, who opposed the Bush administration’s personal background snooping related to Homeland Security Presidential Directive No. 12. The NLRB judge categorically dismissed the testimony of Caltech managers stating, “I reject these excuses as created after the fact.”

JPL under UC management

If Brown’s sincere commitment to scientific inquiry free from witch hunts is to be realized in the Trump era, the incoming NASA administrator would have to transfer JPL management from Caltech to UC. This seems unlikely. If NASA refuses, the transfer still might be made through an act of Congress. This would require the efforts of local congressional representatives Adam Schiff and Judy Chu, who represent JPL and Caltech respectively. Both Schiff and Chu profess strong support for science-based climate change research with no political interference.

Brown can have his wish if Chu and Schiff take the initiative. 

Robert M. Nelson is an astrophysicist at the Planetary Science Institute. He is a United States delegate to the International Astronomical Union, a member of the American Astronomical Society, the American Geophysical Union and a NASA selected member of the Cassini Saturn Orbiter Mission. He is also a delegate to the California Democratic Party State Central Committee, a founding member of the Pasadena Foothills Democratic Club and was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 1988, 1992 and 2016.