Editorial | Ignorance Is Not Bliss

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Space-based climate change monitoring initiatives are targeted for cuts in a spending bill drafted in the U.S. House of Representatives that otherwise does fairly well by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

There are several positives in the 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill, which was approved May 8 by the House Appropriations Committee. The $52 billion measure provides what would be the highest annual funding ever for NASA’s effort to restore independent U.S. crew access to the international space station, something that has taken on a greater urgency with the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations. At the same time, the report accompanying the bill effectively directs NASA to down-select to a single commercial crew provider, whereas the agency wants to have two such services at its disposal.

The bill also provides $70 million next year to operate the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a large airborne telescope that the White House proposes to ground after less than a year of full-scale scientific operations. NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR, spent $1 billion developing SOFIA, which had been expected to operate for 20 years.

NOAA’s weather satellite programs also are fully funded in the bill, as is the latest in a long-running and highly successful series of ocean-altimetry satellites built in cooperation with France.

But the bill rejects NOAA’s request for $15 million next year for three instruments — including the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor, which collects important climate change data — that were supposed to fly on a freeflyer satellite that Congress declined to fund for 2014. NOAA is looking at other options for flying the hardware, including hosted payload arrangements.

The lawmakers also fired a warning shot at NOAA’s plan to fly a new climate change sensor on the Joint Polar Satellite System-2 weather satellite in 2021, requesting a detailed report on its cost and schedule requirements for the Radiation Budget Instrument, which measures solar radiation reflected from Earth. In the report accompanying the bill, the committee expressed concern that the instrument, one of several climate change sensors that became NASA’s responsibility after being stripped from the JPSS program in the 2014 budget bill, might jeopardize the JPSS-2 launch schedule. The Radiation Budget Instrument would continue important measurements that have been gathered since 1998 by the Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System sensors. 

The House bill also declined to fund another climate sensor that was transferred to NASA: the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor 2, which the space agency hopes to fly as a hosted payload aboard a commercial satellite in geostationary orbit around the end of the decade. 

These actions continue a long-term pattern of hostility toward climate change research by House Republicans that goes back to the 1990s, when the GOP unsuccessfully tried to cut the heart out of NASA’s Earth Observing System, which was designed to help scientists better understand the phenomenon known as global warming. That attempt was met and checked by the Senate, and in particular by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the powerful appropriator.

Hopefully, the Senate will push back hard against the latest House recommendations and see to it that the current instrument-development programs are fully funded next year. One need not agree with U.S. President Barack Obama’s assertion that the scientific debate over climate change is settled to recognize how critical it is to continue studying the phenomenon, which has profound geopolitical and societal implications — whether or not it can be slowed or halted by modifying human behavior. It would be nicer still if House lawmakers would take their heads out of the sand on this matter.