James Garvin is the Chief Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Dr. Garvin has been at NASA for 35 years in a variety of roles and missions, and is well known for his incredible work in NASA’s Mars explorational programs. Listen to James talk about his beginnings in science, the legacy he wishes to leave behind, and what he hopes NASA will accomplish in the future.
This episode was produced and mixed by Shane M Hanlon.
Shane Hanlon: I think I’m born out of the original goals of Earth Day to clean up the planet. Now when folks think about Earth Day, I’d reckon that they’re focusing on climate change. But the original thrust of Earth Day was around litter and recycling and cleaning up the Friday. Fun fact – my eldest brother was born on the first Earth Day…and he’s an environmental scientist. Huh. But to that point about recycling, this has been something that was engrained in me from…probably birth. I grew up in rural America so the idea of curbside recycling wouldn’t have even been a thing to me. We had to drive into town and separate out all our recycling. When I went to college, there was kind of a curbside setup but it wasn’t reliable so I’d line up all my recycling (frankly, mostly bottles) and take them to a drop-off each week. In grad school my university had a dedicated facility to recycle Styrofoam which blew my mind. And even to this day, probably 75% of our waste goes out w/ the recycling. And I hope it actually is recycled and not just thrown out like in some places whose facilities have closed or can’t afford it. I’m hopeful that I’m not just and aspirational recycler.
Shane Hanlon: Everyone has a story, even, or maybe especially, scientists. Science affects each and every one of us. Let’s talk about it. From the American Geophysical Union, I’m Shane Hanlon, and this is Sci & Tell.
Shane Hanlon: I’m talking so much about recycling and Earth Day because we just passed the 50th anniversary of it! If you missed our previous episodes on the original Earth Rise pictures, as well as our compilation episode featuring NASA scientists talking about what the anniversary means to them, I highly suggest you check them out. For our final Earth Day episode this week, we have an interview with NASA scientist Jim Garvin who was interviewed with the scientists you (hopefully) heard in the previous episode. We chose to feature his thoughts in their entirety b/c, well, there’s just a lot of great stuff in there. Hope you like it.
James Garvin: So Earth Day … Monumental. Recognition that we live on this priceless spacecraft, Earth, planet, system … It’s our life boat. It’s all we got, so cherishing its systems at every scale, spectacular. Earth Day raised the awareness of that in a way beyond just scientific whatever, Congressional whatever, important decision-maker levels. And so connecting our Earth to who we are and how we are, vitally important.
And we’ve done pretty well. Not perfect, because I still think stewardship of the priceless systems on our planet, it’s still sometimes relegated to the third tier rather than the first. That’s driven by the realities of market economies and what people need. People want food, they want internet, they want power. They don’t want to not have that at the expense of a few trees somewhere, or whatever.
I think it’s critical. 50 years is a generation roughly. We can all debate. So in 50 years, we need to project and think about the next 50 far more proactively. In 50 years, we’ve raised awareness, we’ve built models, we’ve got scientists interested. At NASA, we have Earth System Science connecting satellite models to how we live. Not operational. That’s NOAA. But that’s NASA’s job. I think the next 50 years of discovery of our planet is essential.
One of the big initiatives that’s happening organically is this global sea floor mapping project that’s going on. That’s crucial because 70% of the earth is down there. Keeping those oceans viable. I’m part of a team that just wrote a paper about carls in the Tongan archipelago. We’ve got to keep that part of our planet sustainable, and something we can work with.
The kids of today realize that, which is fabulous. The problem is actionable things that keep lives so we all live better and live well are tricky, and big problems. I look at this generation today for the next 50 as that’s their 50 to take care of our planet.
One way of taking care of our planet is understand how unique it is as we explore space. So we go to the Moon, and we see a collisional world with its own unique history that’s not Earth, and yet pieces of early Earth are on the Moon. Inside one of the Apollo 14 rocks, we found a piece of stuff that must’ve come from Earth. So our record may actually be in the attic of Earth, the Moon.
So getting to know our Earth as a system, living systems, oceans, how the socioeconomic systems of our planet work, vital. A lot of universities are now starting special institutes to look at the intersection of science, environment, society. I’ve been involved with one at Brown. It’s spectacular, looking at environmental historians connecting that, to economists who look at that in the history of science and technology coupled to actual science. Because that’s the interplay. How can we use those systems together to make lives better?
I’d like to give one number. When Apollo 8 went to the Moon in ’68, no life raft. There were about 3.4 billion people on Earth. Today, 7.8 billion people. In 50 years, don’t know. So we have to use this resource we have, where we live unbounded in many ways, but not fully, very smartly. Earth Day, and commemorating it, and using Earth is our … It’s where we live. It’s our neighborhood. Don’t we want to keep our neighborhood good? Mr. Rogers always said that.
So I think it’s very important. NASA has an Earth Science program. Sometimes it’s underserved because of political variations. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. I was actually the Earth System Science Pathfinder Project Scientist for five years when we started new missions to Earth. We have to do more because as we understand this planet, we will understand how we can better live and use it. And, yeah, when populations were small, the Earth was not well understood. Of course, we were going to do whatever we could. But not we’re smarter. We can watch things as they happen. We can witness the effects of us, of external events, collision, storms, volcanic eruptions. We can put them together into a system. Business systems predict profits and things. We can do that to predict livability of our planet. It’s within reach.
So I hope we can learn. I’m optimistic. I think there will be an environmental stewardship economy potential, but how that’s going to work, I don’t know. People didn’t predict the internet economy. It’s these smart kids of today, the Millennials and beyond, they’ll figure it out, I think. But it’s important. Earth matters, and she’s a tough nut, but we don’t want to crack her.
Shane Hanlon: Speaking as a millennial, I hope Jim’s right, and that’s so much to him for sharing his thoughts with us.
Thanks also to Paul Molin for conducting this interview.
If you like what you’ve heard, stay tuned for more Sci & Tell episodes to come!
From this scientist in the studio, to all of you out there in the world, thanks for listening to our stories.