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Engineering the Earth: The Emergence of the “Earth System” Concept at NASA, 1978-1982

Sat, March 17, 8:30 to 10:00am, Riverside Convention Center, RC E


Since the 1980s, it has become commonplace for Earth and environmental scientists to use the stock phrase, the “Earth system.” The phrase gestures at large-scale systematic relations and interactions between the oceans, atmosphere, biosphere, and land masses. While the term “Earth system” is now commonplace, especially in discussions of climate change, the concept to which it refers is not a subject of investigation. Instead, the Earth system concept serves as a background assumption and working tool for other research, usually at a more granular level. In this paper, I ask: when and how did scientists begin to conceive of the Earth as a system? I argue that the “Earth system” concept that emerged and stabilized by the mid-1980s was a result of an institutional need at NASA that emerged in the late 1970s. Faced with the imminent end of its flagship project, the Space Shuttle, NASA needed new directions. This institutional need was instrumental in motivating the construction in the 1980s of a large scale Earth and environmental science research program, called Earth System Science, reliant on Earth observing satellite data.

This paper will examine the early work of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) to formulate broad new ideas about NASA’s future directions. Two NAC workshops in 1979 and 1980 produced several possibilities, one of which was a comprehensive program for studying the components of the “terrestrial ecosystem,” an early version of what later would be called the “Earth system.” A somewhat nebulous idea at the time, it percolated throughout the agency and broader scientific community until an opportunity emerged in which it could be solidified into a more concrete initiative, at the 1982 United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, UNISPACE ‘82. From these roots emerged the “Earth system” concept that is now commonplace


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