Letter: Report Recognized Earth Science Efforts

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Your May 14 editorial “Another Constituency Heard From” draws a conclusion that was not intended by the Committee on the Assessment of NASA’s Earth Science Program, the authors of the recent National Research Council (NRC) report “Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Midterm Assessment of NASA’s Implementation of the Decadal Survey.”

The 2007 NRC decadal survey, “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond,” called for a renewal of the national commitment to a balanced program of Earth observations in which attention to securing practical benefits for humankind plays an equal role with the quest to acquire knowledge about the Earth system. Our 2012 midterm assessment report states that NASA responded favorably and aggressively to this survey, embracing its overall recommendations for Earth observations, missions, technology investments and priorities for the underlying science.

Contrary to an assertion in the editorial, we found that significant progress has been made by NASA and the Earth science and applications communities over the past five years. In addition to the successful launches of Suomi NPP, Aquarius, and Ocean Surface Topography Mission/Jason-2, the NASA Earth Science program initiated the Earth Venture solicitation line, began implementation of the Soil Moisture Active-Passive and ICESat-2 decadal survey missions, and provided for technology development efforts in direct support of all the decadal survey missions. At the same time, the program sustained its accompanying Research & Analysis program, entrained applications end-users directly from the beginning stages of mission development, and reinvigorated its airborne program, including such notable successes as the IceBridge campaign.

However, we also found that the survey’s vision is being realized at a far slower pace than was recommended, principally because the required budget was not achieved. Exacerbating the budget shortfalls, NASA Earth science programs experienced launch failures and delays, and the cost of implementing missions increased substantially as a result of changes in mission scope, increases in launch vehicle costs, the lack of availability of a reliable and affordable medium-class launch vehicle, underestimation of costs by the decadal survey, and unfunded programmatic changes that were required by Congress and the White House Office of Management and Budget. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has made significant reductions in scope to its future Earth environmental observing satellites.

The midterm assessment report recommends a number of steps to better manage existing programs within the context of existing (lower than required) resources. The report recommends that NASA implement its missions in a cost-constrained approach and that it establish a cross-mission Earth system science and engineering team to provide advice on execution of the broad suite of decadal survey missions within the interdisciplinary context advocated by the decadal survey. The report also recommends that NASA continue its pursuit of international partnerships and highlights the urgent need for the executive branch to develop, fund and implement an overarching multiagency national strategy for Earth observations from space, a key recommendation of the 2007 decadal survey that remains unfulfilled.

 

Dennis Hartmann, Seattle

The writer, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, is chairman of the NRC Committee on the Assessment of NASA’s Earth Science Program.