6.2 Atmospheric Chemistry Research at NASA: From the Space Act to the Clean Air Act and Beyond (Core Science Keynote)

Tuesday, 14 January 2020: 2:15 PM
206B (Boston Convention and Exhibition Center)
Richard Eckman, NASA, Washington, DC

Improving our understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere was one of objectives stated in the Space Act of 1958 that created the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). NASA’s involvement in atmospheric science, and more specifically in atmospheric chemistry research, has evolved over time in response to a dramatic increase in our understanding of atmospheric composition. Driven in part by groundbreaking discoveries in the 1970s that demonstrated that anthropogenic emissions have significant impacts on stratospheric ozone (for which three scientists were awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), the Space Act was revised in 1976 to direct NASA to monitor and understand “the chemical and physical integrity of the Earth’s upper atmosphere.”

NASA-sponsored atmospheric chemistry research increased significantly during the 1970s during a period of increasing public awareness of environment issues, such as the impacts of commercial supersonic aircraft on stratospheric chemistry and the atmospheric impacts of chlorofluorocarbon emissions from industrial applications and consumer products. International concern of these issues culminated in the establishment of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985. That year also witnessed the unexpected discovery of stratospheric ozone depletion over Antarctica during austral spring, which led to focused research activities, led by NASA and other US and international agencies, to understand its cause. Revisions to the 1990 U.S. Clean Air Act codified NASA and NOAA responsibility for monitoring and protecting stratospheric ozone, as well as improving air quality standards.

I will highlight NASA’s contributions to atmospheric chemistry research during the past 60 years in the context of changes in our scientific knowledge and evolving societal needs. My presentation won’t attempt to duplicate detailed historical analyses of NASA’s atmospheric science program (e.g., Conway, 2008), but will based, in part, on my experiences at NASA during the past 32 years and with the many colleagues with whom I’ve worked.


Conway, Erik M. (2008). Atmospheric Science at NASA: A History, Baltimore, MD: JHU Press.

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