Robert Burke Addresses the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium


Robert BurkeRobert Burke
Sector Vice President, Civil Systems,
Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems



On Thursday, March 12, 2009, Robert Burke, sector vice president, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, addressed the 47th Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium in Greenbelt, Maryland. Below are his remarks.

There's No Hyphen in Aerospace

It’s an honor to address you today and be in the same company of the distinguished speakers and panelists who have preceded me.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the value Northrop Grumman places on our relationship with the Goddard Space Flight Center. This year Goddard’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – LRO – will be accompanied by the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite – LCROSS – developed with our partners at NASA Ames. These cost-effective robotic lunar missions are an essential step toward sustainable space exploration. If LCROSS detects water ice on the moon, it will make lunar staging bases that much more of a reality. We have heard that sending a rocket to the moon haunted Robert Goddard’s dreams. Imagine what he would have thought of using the moon as a stepping-stone for launches farther into our solar system – perhaps even Mars?

In partnership with NASA Goddard, we are building the James Webb Space Telescope. This amazing observatory will take its place at the second Lagrange point, L2. Once deployed, it will look deep into space, observing stars and galaxies formed near the time of the big bang, and give us clues about the birth of our universe and insight into dark energy and dark matter.

These two missions run the engineering gamut. LCROSS, created by re-using existing technology, went from proposal to completion in just more than two years. JWST, a first-of-a-kind marvel, is benefiting from international collaboration and years of engineering and science expertise. JWST remains the National Research Council’s top priority for astronomy and astrophysics.

Those of us in the business often look outward into space, wanting to break the pull of Earth’s gravity and our own imaginations. Today, I’d like to talk about a subject that hits a little closer to home – the observation of the Earth itself. Any discussion of sustainable space exploration must, of course, take into account the one planet that we know sustains life. The creation of a Global Change Monitoring System – GCMS – faces many challenges moving forward. Some of those challenges are political and economic, particularly given our nation’s budget pressures and the world economic slowdown. But questions of process and engineering are just as urgent.

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time – one that will impact the entire planet’s population. At the same time, we recognize that global warming remains a polarizing issue. Political and economic considerations come into play, and the science is often pushed to the background or manipulated to support a certain position.

But if global warming remains controversial in some quarters, global monitoring does not. Even climate change skeptics, including columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer, have called for more data and a better understanding of what’s really going on.

Global monitoring is a systems challenge, not a social one. I feel we can best ensure support for robust, sustained investment in a GCMS by answering the question, “What is happening?” rather than “Who is at fault?”

Making the case for a GCMS would seem to have gotten easier. The public and our politicians are aware of the issues. Oil companies and car manufacturers spend millions to advertise their green credentials. The younger generation blogs and twitters about melting arctic ice, carbon cap emissions and the latest advances in solar cells.

The new administration is poised for action. President Obama has spoken passionately on the issue of climate change and the need to trust and expand the science. He believes developing a green economy will be essential to our economic prosperity and create millions of jobs.

Just last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured China with Todd Stern, her special envoy for climate change. With the United States and China accounting for 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, Stern told his hosts, “This is not a matter of politics or morality or right or wrong. It is simply the unforgiving math of accumulating emissions.”

The national security implications of climate change are also driving the agenda. The promise of an ice-free arctic has resulted in a rush by many nations to make claims on this part of the planet so rich in natural resources. In hotter climates, such as the horn of Africa, persistent drought and famine have led to decades of political instability. When people are hungry and hot, they get angry. And the world is only getting hotter and more dangerous. At last month’s Munich Security Conference, National Security Advisor General James Jones stated, “The National Security Council will be at the table as our government forges a new approach to energy security and climate change that demands broad cooperation across the U.S. government and more persistent American leadership around the world.”

I think the administration’s intentions are clear. If the United States leads the world on dealing with climate change, it will enhance our national and economic security and help us reclaim a measure of respect in the international community. Creating a GCMS will be essential in strengthening our position moving forward on post-Kyoto climate negotiations and the eventual creation of a Global Earth Observation System of Systems – GEOSS.

Yes, those of us committed to building a GCMS would seem to be in a good position to make our case. But we have to recognize the magnitude of change since last year’s symposium.

At this time last year, the Dow Jones was at 12,110. Millions of Americans were working who have since become unemployed. Lehman Brothers was months from failing, and the price of oil was on its way to more than $140 per barrel that summer. Oil now trades for around one-third that price.

The world economy has experienced an unprecedented level of rapid, destructive change. If the economic downturn means there will be more competition for funding dollars, it also stands as a cautionary example of what can happen when a complex system suddenly goes haywire. I think all of us can make the case to the public and the politicians that the climate, like the economy, demands more monitoring, data and information if we are really going to understand what’s going on and avoid the worst case scenario.

A quick aside. A colleague once told me that the canceling of the Superconducting Super Collider back in the 1990s really had a devastating effect on the world of physics. Things just came to a stop and careers were put on hold. Many people left the field and quite a few of them wound up working on Wall Street, creating the models that the mortgage-backed security market was based upon. Perhaps there’s no better case than that for funding a GCMS and keeping all of us employed in Earth observation science. The world doesn’t need a bunch of engineers and scientists changing careers and working outside their comfort zones.

All kidding aside, we know the climate will not change with the speed of the economy. But the financial crisis has showed us why diligence is so important. Without focused, productive investment on the monitoring front, we could find ourselves in a similar bad situation with the environment. We can’t risk trying to recover from years of bad decisions and missed opportunities caused by poor understanding of our changing climate.

There’s no time to waste. Our ability to make accurate predictions of long-term trends remains insufficient. Last month, Chris Field, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “the actual trajectory of climate change is more serious” than any of the climate predictions in the IPCC’s fourth assessment report. Going further, he said, “We now have data showing that from 2000 to 2007, greenhouse gas emissions increased far more rapidly than we expected.”

And according to a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey, sea levels in 2100 could increase by more than double the 1.5 feet predicted by the IPCC. The reason for the difference – the IPCC chose not to factor in water from eroding ice sheets because they were poorly understood.

That’s the bottom line. While observations have increased our understanding tremendously, there’s still a lot we don’t understand. Mitigating uncertainty is essential. We need a comprehensive measurement and monitoring system if we are to come to grips with this daunting challenge. The aerospace community must architect the most efficient approach and help our leaders establish a viable way to move forward and implement a GCMS, even with all the demands on their time and budgets.

Four integrated systems form a GCMS: observation systems, data handling systems, computing/modeling systems and decision support systems. The aerospace industry can provide infrastructure and support for all four systems. But today I’d like to focus on the observation system.

Such a system would require placing sensors on the ground, undersea, on the sea, in the air and all the way up into space. The sensors would be mounted on a variety of platforms – satellites, ships and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Most of us have spent our careers creating satellites and space-based sensors. Truly global climate information can only be acquired from the vantage point of space. In this context, space is the ultimate high ground.

So far, the climate science community has identified 44 essential climate variables, of which 26 should be monitored from space. The operational monitoring systems scheduled for deployment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the next 10 years will cover more than half of these.

The NASA research missions – Terra, Aqua and Aura – have yielded invaluable data. The U.S. National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System is the logical successor and enables our country to take this capacity further. This stable platform – multiple sensors and ground segments – provides an integrated system where almost 95 percent of the data are to be delivered to the ground within 28 minutes of collection. Of that, 77 percent will be delivered within 15 minutes.

Other components of our holistic national architecture are just as important. LandSAT, GOES-R, the Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) and deployment of NRC decadal missions will significantly advance our understanding of Earth’s climate and what the future might hold.

But as the rate of global change accelerates and budgets are squeezed, we in industry and government must change our perspective. The mind-set that makes us stick with what we know, our comfort zone, cannot last. We must strive to develop innovative concepts for Earth sensing – utilizing new platform opportunities and new instrument architectures and technology.

Now is the time to take Robert Goddard’s lessons to heart and push ourselves to the limits of our creative capacity. Goddard was a trailblazer when it came to both the science and the engineering, and doing it on a tight budget. He invented technological solutions as he went along. He was able to work without preconceptions and find the right solution for the mission.

That’s as essential now as it was back in Goddard’s day. Those of us in aerospace must dedicate ourselves to rigorous, integrated planning that will allow us to capture synergies and increase efficiencies. Industry, government and academia must work in concert to create a GCMS that is comprehensive, coordinated and provides sustained capability.

At the technological level, we can’t afford layered architectures that are not interoperable. We need a family of common sensors that can be fitted to any number of aerospace platforms. We need capable, flexible and interoperable spacecraft busses to host an array of sensors. We need common launch vehicles.

Industry can’t minimize costs and risks without better optics into the future. If we have that, we can better conduct engineering for the planned set of missions. We can optimize platforms, sensors, communications, power and navigation systems – thinking strategically and not just tactically.

As a matter of course, research systems must be benchmarked as they are built so that follow-on development of operational systems can be accomplished at lower risk, lower cost and on tighter schedules. The benchmark approach – documenting development of the research system highlighting all lessons learned – can be used as leverage in optimizing the overall system of systems.

Using existing technology in innovative ways will also allow us to minimize risk and cost. It might also allow us to rethink the set of NRC Decadal missions and do them in less time.

Earlier, I mentioned LCROSS piggybacking on Goddard’s LRO mission. Using the evolved expendable launch vehicle (EELV) secondary payload adapter ring bus, literally turning it into a shepherding spacecraft for the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas V rocket booster, is the type of out-of-the-box thinking that could very well be applied to Earth science missions. Shared launches on EELVs for Earth observation missions are a realistic way to quickly drive down cost and risk.

A significant opportunity for Earth observation moving forward is to integrate space and air platforms. Currently there is an observation gap between the high resolution of airborne measurements, which are limited in spatial and temporal coverage, and satellite observations that provide a global view but without adequate resolution to discern fine scale features needed for some science and applications.

Unlike piloted aircraft, the latest unmanned aerial vehicles are ideally suited to Earth observation. They have greater flight duration and operational altitudes. Some can sample the troposphere and lower stratosphere. They offer the ability to provide extended observations and surveillance of changing phenomena at the regional level.

For example, one geosynchronous satellite provides continuous observations over approximately one-sixth of the Earth’s surface. Those observations are limited at latitudes north of 60 degrees and horizontal resolution is limited by the 35,700-kilometer orbit. Polar-orbiting satellites provide daily global coverage but can only scan a specific point twice daily. To augment geostationary and polar birds, it is feasible to mount high-precision science instruments on a UAV to provide 24-hour continuous coverage over a 200 million-acre region.

UAVs can augment satellites and surface networks with additional science instruments. They can enable better spatial and temporal resolution and be an effective means of validating data sets from both spaceborne and surface-mounted sensors. Ground-based operators can change the UAVs’ navigation and instrument operations during flight to add flexibility to the mission. As part of a system, these platforms overlap and complement one another. We can fill the gap and expand our observational domain, creating a system that utilizes the best of each of their capabilities.

The UAV payloads could be standardized and routinely on call, developed to support specific monitoring missions. These could include adaptive weather forecasting, climate change, ozone monitoring, ice sheet change and disaster assessment from storms, droughts and fires. All these missions offer significant societal benefits and science returns.

Plus the infrastructure is already in place to carry out these missions. UAVs could be operated from existing NASA flight research centers. Both the NASA Wallops and Dryden sites have excellent facilities, experienced staff and access to restricted air space for testing. Flights from Wallops or Dryden could provide coverage in the lower 48 states for a continuous 24-hour period, extended periods in the Arctic or tropical Atlantic and even reconnaissance down to the Antarctic.

At Northrop Grumman, we’re already thinking along these lines. We build the Global Hawk Unmanned Aircraft System, which can fly at altitudes of 65,000 feet for more than 30 hours at a time. Global Hawks traditionally carry out military missions and are currently providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to our troops in Afghanistan. But we recently partnered with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center and NOAA for the Hawk’s initial Earth science mission.

It’s called Global Hawk Pacific 2009, or GLOPAC. This campaign will consist of six long-duration missions over the Pacific and Arctic regions in the late spring and early summer of 2009. The 12 NASA and NOAA scientific instruments integrated into one of the NASA Global Hawk aircraft will collect atmospheric data while flying through the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere.

Previously, Global Hawks were used to monitor last year’s wildfires in California. They were also deployed to aid with hurricane relief efforts on the Gulf Coast. But this is their first dedicated science mission. And we think it’s a harbinger for a number of “ScienceHawk” missions to come.

That’s because UAVs provide lower risk and lower cost augmentation to the GCMS constellation of platforms. They allow us to try things out faster and get more “turns.” We can build confidence and benefit from lessons learned on the path to taking sensor systems and techniques to space. Air platforms can be effectively used cooperatively as calibration mechanisms for space systems. And air platforms can enable collections with a high level of accuracy in a local theater. The Earth observation value of UAVs has been recognized by NASA, NOAA and DOE, and these integrated platforms are a vital component of GEOSS.

Many of you know that Northrop Grumman recently combined its former Space Technology sector with the aircraft side formerly known as Integrated Systems. It’s no secret that there are cultural, creative and process differences between the space and the aircraft side of the industries. But I believe to create a truly integrated, interoperable GCMS – one from sea to space – one that’s truly global – we have to break down the stovepipes within and between industry, government and academia – stovepipes that can hinder communication and innovation.

There’s a great photo of Robert Goddard taken near Roswell, N.M., sometime in the 1930s. Goddard, bald, no coat, bad posture, a grimace that passes for a smile, stands in front of a launching tower. To Goddard’s right stands the financier Harry Guggenheim wearing a very expensive suit. To Goddard’s left stands Charles Lindbergh, tall, handsome, hand casually jammed in his pocket, looking every inch the American icon.

You see it was Lindbergh, the great aviator then at the height of his fame, who had reached out to Goddard when many had shunned him. Goddard was famously secretive about his work and suspicious of collaborators, mainly because of the ridicule he suffered after suggesting in 1920 that a rocket could reach the moon. But Lindbergh won his trust and believed in his vision. And it was Lindbergh who arranged for Guggenheim, the principal benefactor of aeronautical research at Caltech, to financially support Goddard’s work throughout the 1930s.

I think that image speaks volumes even today. Lindbergh the pilot saw Goddard the space pioneer for the genius he was. There was no stovepipe. No “us” versus “them.” It should remind us that there’s no hyphen in the word “Aerospace.” Aerospace is one word. And all of us must keep that in mind moving forward.