Diplomatic Pouch / June 4, 2015
By Larry Luxner
An ambassador and an astronaut shared the podium on a very rainy night in Washington last week to celebrate an unusual collaboration rooted in science, research and half a century of friendship.
On June 1, Cecilia Nahón, Argentina’s envoy to the United States, welcomed to her embassy former Navy test pilot and space shuttle commander Charles F. Bolden Jr., who in 2009 was named by President Obama to head NASA.
The occasion: four years since the launch of Aquarius/SAC-D — a joint effort between NASA and its Argentine counterpart, the Buenos Aires-based Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE), to measure the saltiness of the Earth’s oceans from 408 miles up in space.
“This is a very timely event. In just a couple of days, we will be celebrating the fourth anniversary of the launching of Aquarius/SAC-D,” she told an audience of about 100 people, who had braved a torrential downpour to attend the embassy gathering.
“It is a milestone in our bilateral cooperation on space issues,” Nahón said. “But this development didn’t happen by chance. We are here today because Argentina is one of the few countries in the world that has develop a national space plan — the result of a political decision to commit to the development of science and technology, including a strong public investment in human resources and infrastructure.”
Since 2004, she said, Argentina has invested $3.4 billion in aerospace projects. SAC-D [Satelite de Aplicaciones Cientificas-D] was conceived by CONAE and built by state company INVAC in the southern Patagonian city of Bariloche. In March 2011, the satellite and its main component, Aquarius, was sent to Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California, where the mission was launched by an unmanned Delta rocket on June 11, 2001.
That launch was the focus of a video about Aquarius/SAC-D in Spanish with English subtitles. The film clip was accompanied by a soundtrack that included mournful Argentine tango music and snippets of “Rocket Man,” Elton John’s classic 1972 ode to space travel.
Then Bolden, who has been to Argentina twice, explained why Aquarius/SAC-D is so important.
“It is an absolutely incredible mission. I talk about it being the crown jewel of NASA’s relationship with Argentina,” he said. “We have a long history of close cooperation, having concluded over 50 agreements in the last 50 years with a variety of Argentine government organizations. And this represents the crowning achievement of that relationship.”
This particular mission costs $400 million, of which NASA has contributed $287 million for its portion of the project. Among other things, it provides observations of the salinity of the ocean surface, which are essential for the understanding of climate change.
“Aquarius makes continuous measurements of ocean salinity,” he explained. “For over three years, Aquarius has mapped the entire ocean every seven days, measuring tiny quantities of salt with accuracy to two parts per thousand.”
That’s equivalent to one-eighth teaspoon of salt in a gallon of water, said Bolden, adding that four years after its launch, Aquarius continues to make significant contributions to scientific research.
“This includes how these models forecast future climate conditions,” said Bolden, who, incidentally, is the first black administrator in NASA history. “In effect, through this collaboration, NASA and Argentina are partnering to better understand climate change and impact on Earth and society.”
But Aquarius is just one of eight scientific payloads aboard the SAC-D spacecraft. The other instruments observe fires and volcanoes, map sea ice and collect other data.
As an astronaut, Bolden did four space shuttle missions between 1986 and 1994. He commanded two missions and deployed the Hubble Space Telescope; he also conducted the first joint U.S.-Russian shuttle mission. He’s also visited Argentina twice and has met with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
“I shall always remember, during my first visit, the enthusiasm displayed by the president, who eagerly pored over the first-ever global map of ocean salinity. When I talk about enthusiasm, that doesn’t begin to express her reaction,” Bolden recalled. “We came to a conference table, and when she rolled out that chart, she was mesmerized. She immediately recognized its significance, in that Argentina had been a partner in producing this. Her exuberance caused my 15-minute meeting to stretch into an hour.”
Bolden then agreed to take a few questions from the audience. The Diplomatic Pouch asked him if he was worried that young people were losing interest in space exploration, to which he replied “absolutely not,” and described how manned missions to Mars are already on NASA’s drawing board.
Someone else gingerly inquired whether tiny Pluto — whose mysteries are about to be revealed by the New Horizon spacecraft, which has been hurtling in Pluto’s direction for the last 10 years — is still considered by NASA to be a planet, or just a dwarf planet as the International Astronomical Union ruled in 2006.
“I don’t care what they say, Pluto is a planet,” Bolden insisted. Most of his listeners heartily agreed.
After the speeches and the Q&A, Bolden presented Argentina’s ambassador with a framed collection of memorabilia associated with the Aquarius/SAC-D mission. Nahón, in turn, gave the NASA chief a coffee-table book about Argentina’s Patagonia region.
But it was Bolden who had the last word, just before the crowd broke and headed for the spinach-and-cheese empanadas and Argentine merlot waiting outside.
Quoting from the popular musical “Hair” — a 1967 celebration of hippie counterculture — he predicted that in the not-too-distant future, “peace will guide the planet, and love will steer the starts. This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.”