John LaBrecque

2013 Edward A. Flinn III Award Winner

John L. LaBrecque received the 2013 Edward A. Flinn III Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 11 December 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors “individuals who personify the Union’s motto ‘unselfish cooperation in research’ through their facilitating, coordinating, and implementing activities.”


Ted Flinn and John LaBrecque followed remarkably, perhaps eerily, similar career paths. Ted started as a seismologist, John as a tectonician and sea­going geophysicist. Both decided to rededicate their efforts toward supporting the geophysical community, recognizing that it depends ever more critically on global, space-based measurements and observations. Ted did that a decade after the 1968 Williamstown conference, and John did it a decade after the 1988 Coolfont conference. Both of these history-making conferences focused on the geophysical uses of space assets to study the planet.

Both careers were highlighted by signature space missions: Laser Geodynamics Satellite (LAGEOS) 1 and 2 and related satellites for Ted, Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) and now GRACE-FO for John; Magnetic Field Satellite (MAGSAT) for Ted and Oersted and Challenging Minisatellite Payload (CHAMP) for John. The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), TOPEX­Poseidon, Jason 1 and 2, GRACE, Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR), and other successful geodetic missions have studded John’s tenure. He will leave the field with an exciting list of planned endeavors.

Even more importantly, both of these leaders realized the critical importance of deploying a global geodetic ground segment to the success of Earth observation from space, and both devoted much of their career to this goal. This is, of course, the underpinning of the International Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF). The job of facilitating the realization and maintenance of the ITRF is where AGU’s motto “unselfish cooperation in research” is unusually well illustrated: The task calls for diplomatic international collaboration, balanced coordination of multiple techniques deployed in parallel, and an unswerving commitment to open data. It represents a critical, but rarely acknowledged, foundation of all Earth observations from space. Yet because it is perceived as a “service” activity, science agencies worldwide are reluctant to invest very much in it, especially in view of the long-term commitment it requires. This leaves those who manage the activity in the frustrating position of perennially justifying their existence on the basis of what is perceived as “merely” incremental progress.

Thus, it takes a rather special kind of scientist, with a strong sense of community service, to tackle this obligation, with little prospect for personal benefit or recognition. Both Ted and John have made that choice in their day. In that sense, John LaBrecque is today the undeniable bearer of the flame once held by Ted Flinn, with the huge difference that since the late 1970s, accuracies have improved by nearly 1 order of magnitude per decade; spatial coverage and time resolution have improved even faster. So time dependence is now accessible and is not only interesting but critical to address wonderfully current questions, such as sea level change and its geographical distribution, polar cap dynamics, or even a possible coming reversal of the geomagnetic field. As of today, the Global Geodetic Observing System (GGOS) is clearly one of the most effective components of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). This is due in no small measure to the steady efforts of John LaBrecque and his colleagues worldwide. This legacy will endure.

Dr. John LaBrecque is a most deserving recipient of AGU’s 2013 Edward A. Flinn III Award.

—JEAN BERNARD MINSTER, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla


Thank you, Jean Bernard Minster and those who supported my nomination for the Edward A. Flinn III Award. We owe so much to colleagues such as Bernard Minster who support NASA and Earth Science with unrelenting and unselfish service. I am also grateful to my parents, the people of Lewiston, Maine, and the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 for nurturing my early interest in science with an education that ultimately led me to Columbia University and the Lamont­Doherty Earth Observatory. Lamont for me was a scientific wonderland tended by scientists with global appetites for discovery and adventure. Marine geophysics, geomagnetism, and satellite altimetry of the oceans were creating a revolution of discovery, and Lamont was the center of this revolution. I owe so much to my mentor and dear friend, Walter C. Pitman III, who showed me that great science was accomplished through boundless curiosity, perseverance, and, most of all, humility.

My later career at NASA is blessed with the strong support of NASA upper management and the brilliance, dedication, and hard work of the scientists, engineers, and managers that contribute to NASA’s Space Geodesy Program. I am especially appreciative of those at the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The seminal Watertown Report (1970) called for the development of space geodetic systems to extend our understanding of the geodynamics and ocean dynamics of the Earth System. Ted Flinn built upon the vision of the Watertown scientific assembly and initiated modern space geodetic science. We use the magic of geodetic science and technology whether traveling to Aunt Sally’s home, monitoring the sea level rise, studying the dynamics of ice sheets and the Earth’s crust, or improving communications—space geodetic science and technology have become a critical asset to modern society. Although it is not yet a verb, “GPS” has replaced “xerox” in our daily language.

The last 2 decades witnessed the near collapse of essential space geodetic infrastructure while space geodetic science and its applications were growing. This decline is being reversed by the activism of the geodetic community through the National Research Council, the support of NASA, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, and the many international agencies and institutions that support the Global Geodetic Observing System (GGOS). GGOS is reinventing its global observing infrastructure and analysis systems. The new Global Navigation Satellite Systems including GPS III, Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), Beidou, Galileo, Quasi­Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), and Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS) will accelerate the development of new capabilities and applications of space geodesy to our science and our society.

My Edward A. Flinn Award can be traced to the late 1950s with the establishment of NASA and the support to education by the NDEA. Let us secure continuing scientific advances through a new generation of scientists and engineers that will emerge from our nation’s strong support for education in science, technology, engineering, and math. Finally, I owe so much to Shirley Winkler for her unconditional support despite my long hours away from home and for sharing me with my other love—Earth science.

—JOHN L. LABRECQUE, NASA, Washington, D. C.