Image: Taurus XL launch
Mike Eliason  /  The News-Press via AP
In this three-minute time-exposure photo made with a fish-eye lens, a Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA's Glory satellite lifts off from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base early Friday. Several minutes into the flight, the rocket carrying the Earth-observation satellite plummeted back to Earth.
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updated 3/4/2011 6:19:22 PM ET 2011-03-04T23:19:22

For the second time in two years, a rocket glitch sent a NASA global warming satellite to the bottom of the sea Friday, a $424 million debacle that couldn't have come at a worse time for the space agency and its efforts to understand climate change.

Years of belt-tightening have left NASA's Earth-watching system in sorry shape, according to many scientists. And any money for new environmental satellites will have to survive budget-cutting, global warming politics — and now, doubts on Capitol Hill about the space agency's competence.

The Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA's Glory satellite lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and plummeted to the southern Pacific several minutes later. The same thing happened to another climate-monitoring probe in 2009 with the same type of rocket, and engineers thought they had fixed the problem.

"It's more than embarrassing," said Syracuse University public policy professor Henry Lambright. "Something was missed in the first investigation and the work that went on afterward."

Lambright warned that the back-to-back fiascos could have political repercussions, giving Republicans and climate-change skeptics more ammunition to question whether "this is a good way to spend taxpayers' money for rockets to fail and for a purpose they find suspect."

Used to failure
NASA's environmental division is getting used to failure, cuts and criticism. In 2007, a National Academy of Sciences panel said that research and purchasing for NASA Earth sciences had decreased 30 percent in six years and that the climate-monitoring system was at "risk of collapse."

Just last month, the Obama administration canceled two major satellite proposals to save money.

Also, the Republican-controlled House has sliced $600 million from NASA in its continuing spending bill, and some GOP members do not believe the evidence of manmade global warming.

Thirteen NASA Earth-observing satellites remain up there, and nearly all of them are in their sunset years.

"Many of the key observations for climate studies are simply not being made," Harvard Earth sciences professor James Anderson said. "This is the nadir of climate studies since I've been working in this area for 40 years."

Scientists are trying to move climate change forecasts from ones that are heavily based on computer models to those that rely on more detailed, real-time satellite-based observations like those that Glory was supposed to make. The satellite's failure makes that harder.

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Ruth DeFries, the Columbia University professor who co-chaired the 2007 National Academy of Sciences panel, said in an e-mail that this matters for everyone on Earth.

"The nation's weakening Earth-observing system is dimming the headlights needed to guide society in managing our planet in light of climate change and other myriad ways that humans are affecting the land, atmosphere and oceans," DeFries wrote.

NASA Earth Sciences chief Michael Freilich said it is not that bad.

"We must not lose sight of the fact that we in NASA are flying 13 research missions right now, which are providing the fuel for advancing a lot of our Earth science," Freilich told The Associated Press. He said airplane missions, current satellites and future ones can pick up much of the slack for what Glory was going to do.

However, Freilich, at a budget briefing a year ago, described the Earth-watching satellites as "all old," adding that 12 of the 13 "are well beyond their design lifetimes."

"We're losing the ability to monitor really key aspects of the climate problem from space," said Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona. "Just about every climate scientist in the world has got to be sad right now."

Why it failed
Glory failed when the rocket's clamshell-shaped protective covering that was supposed to shield it during launch never opened to let the satellite fire into orbit. A similar fiasco happened in 2009 when the Orbiting Carbon Observatory fell back to Earth after the rocket nose cone also failed to separate.

A NASA investigation board and Taurus' builder, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., will try to figure out what wrong. It was the third failure out of nine launches for that rocket. NASA paid Orbital $54 million for launching Glory. The last failure was traced to the system that jettisons the covering, and Orbital changed its design.

"To make any connection between our investigation of the 2009 ... mishap and Friday's failure of the Glory launch at this time would be purely speculative and wholly inappropriate," said investigative panel chairman Rick Obenschain, deputy director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The replacement for the Orbital Carbon Observatory is to be launched in 2013 on a Taurus XL, but NASA officials said the OCO-2 launch could be switched to a different launch vehicle if necessary.

Orbital is also developing a new rocket called Taurus 2 as well as a Cygnus space capsule to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. That project has received $171 million in NASA support. Orbital's executives said they did not expect Friday's Taurus XL failure to have significant impact on the Taurus 2 effort.

This report includes contributions from science writer Alicia Chang in Los Angeles, as well as supplementary information from msnbc.com.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: ‘Glory’ fails to make orbit

  1. Closed captioning of: ‘Glory’ fails to make orbit

    >>> not a good day for the american space program . moments ago, the launch of the supersecret s-37 space train was delayed due to weather. the purpose of the mini space shuttle is unknown. the officials worry the craft is a possible weapon targeting their satellites. this delay comes hours after a bigger failure in nasa. the glory satellite failing to make orbit because of a flinch, the same glitch that brought down a similar rocket in 2009 leaving officials feeling pretty embarrassed.

    >> all indications are that the satellite and rocket is in the southern pacific ocean somewhere.

    >> scientists say the satellite would have helped us understand which drivers of climate change were man made and which are naturally occurring. might have been nice to know that. the cost of the glory failure,

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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