This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
To gauge the impact of the National Academies’ first Earth science decadal survey, it’s important to look beyond its list of 15 recommended missions and consider the warning the panel began conveying in its 2005 interim report: The U.S. Earth-observing program was in danger of collapse.
“Normally, a decadal survey doesn’t have that kind of language, but it was accurate,” said Berrien Moore, co-chair of the first Earth science decadal survey committee and Oklahoma University vice president of weather and climate programs. “Budgets were dropping, missions were being canceled, there was nothing in the queue. That immediately got Capitol Hill engaged and the press engaged.”
Eleven years after the National Academies published “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond,” NASA has a vibrant Earth science program, which Moore credits to the wakeup call provided by the 2007 decadal survey and the leadership of Mike Freilich, NASA’s long-serving Earth Science Division director. Freilich remained committed to the committee’s recommendations even though he was not always able to carry them out due to budget constraints and launch failures, Moore said.
“Carrying out all of the recommendations would have been a home run winning the World Series,” said Rick Anthes, co-chair of the 2007 decadal survey committee and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research president emeritus. “I don’t think any of us expected that everything would get done on time and within budget.”
Nevertheless, Moore is disappointed in the way NASA handled two decadal survey missions: Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), a campaign to measure water in topsoil, and Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) 2, which focuses on ice sheets and sea ice.
To study soil moisture, the committee suggested NASA draw on the hardware, science algorithms and ground systems developed for a canceled Earth System Science Pathfinder mission called Hydrosphere State, or Hydros. Instead of proceeding with Hydros for an estimated $325 million, NASA launched SMAP in 2015 at a cost of $915 million to build, launch and operate. SMAP’s radiometer continues to function but its radar failed after less than six months due to a faulty amplifier.
Similarly, the 2007 decadal survey panel called on NASA to make ICESat-2 nearly identical to ICESat but with an improved laser. NASA discovered problems with the original mission’s laser soon after the satellite launched in 2009.
“We wanted to get [ICESat-2] up there quickly and we knew what it would cost,” Moore said. “That is not what [NASA] Goddard decided to do.”
ICESat-2, which is slated to launch in September, is expected to cost more than twice as much as the $300 million mission recommended in the 2007 report.
“It’s a far more expansive mission and it’s really exciting but it’s really expensive and really late,” Moore said.
When the 2007 decadal survey was published, NASA leaders including then-Administrator Mike Griffin said the plan was overly ambitious and its mission cost estimates were too low.
That warning proved prescient as missions that won approval and funding tended to become more complex, expensive and time consuming.
“In my experience, cost growth occurs in space programs almost no matter how much you try to control it,” Anthes said. “It seems to be endemic.”
To ensure estimates are more accurate in the new 10-year-plan published Jan. 5, “Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space,” the Aerospace Corp. provided cost and technical evaluations of major projects and technology proposed.
The report’s authors laud the work of the 2007 decadal committee and recommended NASA continue to carry out its current slate of missions based on the report.
Of the 15 missions recommended in the 2007 survey, only SMAP is in orbit. NASA plans to launch the second recommened mission in March, the U.S.-German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On mission, twin satellites to circle Earth and detect changes in gravitational pull.
Although the missions are taking far longer than expected, Anthes said he is encouraged by NASA’s progress in other areas. In response to the panel’s recommendations, NASA created a new category of low-cost competitively selected missions known as Venture class. The first of those, Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, includes eight 25-kilogram satellites launched in December 2016 to measure ocean winds.
In addition, NASA heeded the committee’s calls to fund research and support science, Anthes said.