Letter: NASA’s Earth Science Didn’t Get ‘Poor Marks’


In its May 14 editorial, “Another NASA Constituency Heard From,”Space News makes two important points: that the number of expected orbiting NASA Earth science assets is a function of the budget climate, and America’s “funding woes have not reduced the pressing need to maintain and expand capabilities to monitor the changing global climate and environment.”

NASA is working hard with our partners, supported by the administration and the Congress, to deploy the next-generation Earth-observing systems and analysis tools to meet the needs for environmental information in a climate of fiscal austerity.

Contrary to what the editorial stated, however, the recent National Research Council (NRC) panel report did not give NASA “poor marks” for the progress made to date, nor is it true that “NASA has precious little to show of late for its annual investment in Earth science.” NASA’s Earth Science and Applications program is making substantial advances with much more to come. We have continued to achieve appreciable mission and research successes, thanks in part to the recent creation of new opportunities for innovation and productive partnerships.

Upon receipt of the NRC decadal survey in 2007, NASA moved rapidly to implement its recommendations. The 2012 NRC assessment strongly endorses this in its lead finding, stating: “NASA responded favorably and aggressively to the decadal survey, embracing its overall recommendations for Earth observations, missions, technology investments, and priorities for the underlying science. As a consequence, the scientific and applications communities have made significant progress over the past 5 years.”

NASA has accomplished much since the decadal survey’s release in 2007 — more than just the launch of Suomi NPP last year. In 2011 alone, the program issued major solicitations for two innovative small-satellite and Earth instrument missions as part of the new competitive Venture-class flight program and successfully launched the Aquarius/SAC-D mission in partnership with the Argentine space agency, CONAE.

Since 2008, our program has completed and launched five legacy missions that had been lingering in development, some since the late 1990s: Jason-2/Ocean Surface Topography Mission; Orbiting Carbon Observatory (lost due to a Taurus-XL rocket failure); Glory (Taurus-XL failure); Aquarius/SAC-D; and Suomi NPP.

NASA is also completing the final two legacy missions identified in the decadal survey: the NASA-U.S. Geological Survey Landsat Data Continuity Mission (2013 launch) and the NASA-Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Global Precipitation Measurement mission (2014 launch). The SAGE-III instrument is being refurbished for launch to the international space station in August 2014. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 recovery mission is now in test, preparing for a 2014 launch. The Tier-1 decadal survey Soil Moisture Active-Passive (2014 launch) and ICESat 2 (2016 launch) missions are well along in development. Venture-class small-satellite and instrument proposals will be selected in 2012 for launches no later than 2017. And we have invested in advancing key technologies needed to enable each of the other decadal survey missions.

NASA’s Earth Science observation and research architecture integrates partnership opportunities and explicitly fosters creative approaches through the competitive process. Most of our on-orbit Earth Science research satellites have international partnerships. NASA has collaborative mission development agreements for Global Precipitation Measurement (with JAXA), SAGE-III (with the European Space Agency), Soil Moisture Active-Passive (with the Canadian Space Agency), GRACE Follow-on (with Germany, for launch in 2017), and the wide-swath altimeter mission Surface Water Ocean Topography (with the French space agency, CNES, to launch in 2019). In 2010, NASA and the European Space Agency signed our first Framework Agreement for cooperation in Earth observations. The 2012 NRC assessment report explicitly acknowledged these efforts, finding: “NASA has made considerable efforts to secure international partnerships to meet its science goals and operational requirements.”

The NASA Earth Venture-Instrument program develops instruments to fly as hosted payloads on commercial (and international) satellites, explicitly allowing us to capitalize on all launch and partnership opportunities allowed by national policy and statute. The larger competitive Venture-class program of small satellites, instruments of opportunity, and airborne investigations implements a high-priority NRC decadal survey recommendation and assures open pathways for innovative development approaches. Again, the NRC panel acknowledged this accomplishment, finding: “The Earth Venture program is being well implemented by NASA and is a crucial component of fulfilling the 2007 decadal survey’s objectives.”

As the NRC committee made clear, it is the strong, steady stream of research results and new applications that redeems the nation’s investment in the NASA Earth Science program, and these results are essential to the success of our nation in improving life on Earth. We are very proud of our past and ongoing efforts at NASA to fulfill the intent of the decadal survey within the budgetary challenges the nation faces. We invite the Space News editorial team to take a closer look at our program.


Michael H. Freilich, Washington

The writer is director of the Earth Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.