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NASA Plans for U-Tapao Airfield Cause Stir



NASA 926 and NASA 928 are the only two General Dynamics WB-57s still flying in the world today and are used for NASA’s High Altitude Research Program


Chiangrai Times – The Thai government on Tuesday delayed a decision to let U.S. space agency NASA use a military air base for climate study after the main opposition party claimed, among other things, that it was tantamount to a surrender of sovereignty.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had asked to use the U-Tapao air base, in southeast Thailand, built by the United States for its forces to use during the Vietnam War.

The NASA project may have fallen foul of internal Thai politics

“NASA will have to call off the programme this year, which is a shame for weather monitoring technology in Thailand,” Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said.

The NASA project may have fallen foul of internal Thai politics: the opposition Democrats are also claiming the government had agreed to the deal in return for the United States’ granting a visa to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the brother of current premier Yingluck.

Kristin Kneedler, a U.S embassy spokeswoman, denied any such agreement. “We do not exchange visas for favours,” she said.

Scientists have expressed disappointment over the delay in the government’s response to Nasa’s request to use U-Tapao airport as a base for a climate study.

Thailand stood to lose a great chance to improve its atmospheric knowledge if Nasa cancelled the project or moved it elsewhere, they said.

Serm Janjai, who is among four Thai scientists on the Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study (SEAC4RS), as it is known, said the country’s credibility would suffer if the delay cost Thailand the chance to host the study.

“If we lose this opportunity, we will lose our chance forever. Nasa will move elsewhere,” Mr Serm, a lecturer of Silpakorn University’s science faculty, said.

He said Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan had agreed to work with Nasa on atmospheric studies in 2005.

Assoc Prof Serm Janjai of Silpakorn University’s faculty of science explains how Thailand stands to benefit from the United States’ climate study project at U-tapao airport

In September 2011, the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA) signed a memorandum of understanding with Nasa to undertake the SEAC4RS.

The airbone study would focus on the composition of the atmosphere over Southeast Asia.

They included the Asian monsoon circulation impact on the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere composition, and the biomass burning impact on atmospheric composition, radiation and clouds.

The study would run over August and September.

Mr Serm said the US initially wanted to use an airport in Surat Thani but later found that U-tapao airport base was the most appropriate due to its longer runway. The US made its request to use U-tapao early this year.

Narisara Thongboonchoo, an engineering lecturer of the King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang who worked on a Nasa atmosphere study project in the US in 2001 and 2004, insisted the project was scientific and there was no political agenda behind it.

It was impossible for the US to use the project to spy on Thailand as many scientists from across the world were working on the project.

If it took part, Thailand would obtain data on chemical exposure to the atmosphere over Map Ta Phut industrial estate in Rayong to deal with pollution there.

“Please do not link the study to politics. America is very fair. It even lets us know what kind of equipment will be taken aboard the planes,” she said.

“The project can help Thai scientists develop their knowledge on atmosphere and greenhouse gas pollution impacts against cloud forming and climate change,” she said.

She said Nasa will conduct about 20 flights from U-tapao during the study.

The data will be used to create a model to forecast climate change impacts caused by the greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

“Nasa will also suffer a great loss if the request is not approved by the government. It has spent a lot of money on the project. Each flight will cost it 45 million baht.

“Worse than that, Thailand will destroy the chance for other Asean members such as Singapore, Cambodia and Indonesia to gain access to world-class scientific research and study,” she said.

She said Nasa planned to conduct a study on storms and monsoon forming in the first week of August.

If the government approves its request now, the study would have to be postponed until the middle of August.

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