Landsat 8
Artist's concept of the Landsat 8 satellite NASA launched in February 2013. Credit: Orbital ATK

The successful launch Feb. 11 of the Landsat 8 Earth observation satellite brought sighs of relief from a user community that has been making due with degraded data from a spacecraft that, thankfully, has continued operating well beyond its life expectancy. Unfortunately, for those seeking long-term stability in a program that since 1972 has facilitated applications ranging from water- and energy-resource management to environmental-change studies, there’s no relief in sight.

That’s because there’s no clear plan in place for a successor satellite. The reason, which will come as a shock to no one, is disagreement between Congress and the White House on how to proceed, an issue now completely overshadowed by the budgetary turmoil gripping Washington.

To briefly recap, planning for the Landsat 8 satellite began soon after the April 1999 launch of Landsat 7, as appropriate given the five-year design life that is typical of these missions. But Landsat 8, or Landsat Data Continuity Mission as it was known, was sidetracked by a failed commercialization effort followed by an ill-conceived bid to piggyback the mission aboard a new generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites that — incidentally — never made it off the drawing board. By the time the mission was finally placed under contract — a process that itself was complicated by a tug-of-war over program responsibilities — Landsat 7 had been in orbit for more than eight years. Meanwhile, Landsat 7 suffered a glitch on its main sensor in 2003 and has been returning degraded data ever since.

With Landsat 8 entering its 100-day on-orbit test and checkout period, now is the time to begin gearing up for a successor, which in an ideal world would be ready for launch by 2018. But the smart money says it won’t be: Congress balked at funding the program in 2012 — the last year for which lawmakers passed an appropriations bill — and directed the White House and the program’s agency stakeholders to examine less-costly options for obtaining the data. Lawmakers also have reservations about plans to transfer Landsat development funding from NASA, which builds the satellites, to the Department of Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which is responsible for satellite operations and data archiving and distribution.

The question of who pays to build the satellite isn’t really all that important: Ultimately the money comes from the U.S. federal treasury, and while a case can be made for keeping it in NASA’s budget, the other model, in which the space agency acts as general contractor on behalf of a user agency, has worked reasonably well with weather satellites. But unless the U.S. government is prepared to abandon the Landsat program entirely, and rely on other countries to provide roughly comparable data, there isn’t much in the way of low-cost alternatives to the current program construct: Little has changed in the last decade to suggest that the commercialization or hosted payload approaches will have any more success than before.

The one thing revisiting Landsat strategy is sure to accomplish is to delay the start of work on the next satellite. It is true that Landsat 8, at some $855 million including launch — but not counting costs associated with the stillborn commercialization initiative — was too expensive. But the surest way to drop that price is to run a straightforward, fixed-price procurement of hardware that meets data requirements as determined by anchor customers like the USGS and the Department of Agriculture.

Sadly, that’s probably too much to ask in this age of government dysfunction. Indeed, with critical future space services like weather forecasting and space situational awareness now in question, worries about Landsat data continuity seem downright quaint. Under the circumstances, perhaps the best advice for Landsat users is to enjoy the present — Landsat 8 offers more capability than its predecessors — and not worry about the future. Those who run Washington don’t seem to care much about either.