Michael Freilich, Earth Science Division Director, NASA Science Mission Directorate


When Michael Freilich took leave of his research post at Oregon State University in 2006 to run NASA’s then $1.2 billion Earth Science Division, the U.S. space agency was poised to receive the recommendations of the National Research Council’s first Earth science decadal survey. When the long-awaited report came out in January 2007, it called for NASA to build and launch by 2020 no fewer than 15 environmental satellites and create a Venture-class line of scientist-led research missions costing $100 million to $200 million apiece to provide frequent flight opportunities for new instruments.

The decadal survey said NASA could afford to meet the admittedly ambitious schedule if the White House and Congress would rapidly increase its Earth science budget to $2 billion a year.

NASA disagreed, saying that implementing the decadal survey’s recommendations would cost as much as $4 billion during the peak years of spacecraft development — about three times more than what the administration of then-President George W. Bush was willing to spend on NASA’s Earth science program.

When Freilich took his division’s $1.3 billion budget request before Congress the following year, he said NASA could afford to build and launch the first two decadal survey missions — a second-generation Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) craft and the Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, mission — by 2015 and begin development on at least three more that he hoped would launch before the decade was through.

Freilich’s budget, at $1.4 billion, has not changed that dramatically in the two years since President Barack Obama was elected promising scientists more money for studying the Earth and monitoring climate change. But with the president’s 2011 request before Congress, NASA’s Earth Science Division is slated for more robust growth: $1.8 billion for the year, increasing to nearly $2.3 billion by 2015.

Assuming that money comes to pass, Freilich says, NASA can afford to launch by late 2017 a total of four decadal survey missions — SMAP and ICESat-2 plus the Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice mission, or DESDynI, and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory, or CLARREO. Those missions, comprising the decadal survey’s first-tier priorities, would be followed by two second-tier missions — Active Sensing of CO2 Emissions over Nights, Days and Seasons (ASCENDS) and Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) — before the decade is through.

In addition to proposing to take on these new missions, NASA is moving ahead on the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, finishing development of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission and starting to build a replacement for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite destroyed in a 2009 launch mishap.

Freilich is also busy making sure NASA’s Earth Science Division complies with a U.S. national space policy issued by the White House in June putting climate monitoring at the top of the space community’s to-do list and cementing NASA’s leading role in sustained carbon measurements. Freilich took time out to speak with Space News staff writer Amy Klamper.


Obama’s 2011 budget accelerates certain decadal survey mission priorities, such as DESDynI and CLARREO, but it doesn’t appear to speed SMAP or ICESat-2, which in 2009 were each slated to launch a year earlier.

The president’s budget request allows us to fly all four of those Tier-1 decadal missions in the same three-year time period. We are planning to launch SMAP in late 2014, ICESat-2 in late 2015, DESDynI radar and lidar and CLARREO by late 2017. The idea of the decadal survey recommendations here was to have substantial on-orbit overlap between these missions so as to get the scientific synergies. Obviously in the past there’s been optimism relative to instrument and mission costs at various stages of the budget process, but looking at where we were before Feb. 1 of this year and where we were after Feb. 1 of this year, this represents fairly substantial accelerations.


You also plan to speed development of the decadal survey recommendations for second-tier systems, by launching ASCENDS and SWOT missions late this decade. Weren’t these missions targeted for launch between 2013 and 2016?

When the decadal survey came out, they defined three tiers. Tier 1 was to launch four missions between 2010 and 2013, Tier 2 was to launch five missions between 2013 and 2016, and Tier 3 was to launch six missions between 2016 and 2020. This was predicated on a budget increase to the $2 billion level annually by 2010 and the mission costs actually being those proposed in the decadal survey (about $6.75 billion total). Neither of those assumptions actually worked out. However, I think it’s important to look at what the president’s climate initiative does provide for carbon measurements. For the first time, NASA will put together a sustained carbon dioxide global measurement system that involves a three-mission sequence, starting with the replacement for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) mission and continuing through ASCENDS. This is something we haven’t done before.


Your budget includes funding for OCO-2 but not for the third instrument NASA says it intends to build. How will you pay for it?

When we presented the program to the White House, we pointed out that the OCO-2 program was robustly spared and that there were sufficient parts that would be procured right up front to potentially allow subsequent construction of an OCO-3 instrument, although not a spacecraft or launch vehicle. Parts costs are minor in the overall development. But not purchasing parts up front leaves you open to tremendous nonrecurring engineering costs down the road. The president’s climate initiative includes sufficient funding for the Earth Science Division to allow the construction and development of the OCO-3 instrument for flight as an instrument of opportunity somewhere in the 2015 time frame.


Obama’s space policy places a stronger emphasis on climate monitoring and for the first time acknowledges NASA’s role in leading sustained carbon measurements. How will this affect the way NASA transitions these missions from research to long-term data acquisition functions in other federal agencies?

A key to transition is the resources in the receiving agency. And the challenge that we have had in this nation, and the reason that we have crises of continuity, has frankly been the inability of the long-term data acquisition agencies to be given the resources needed to take on the transition job. What this policy does is recognize that in order to do the science that NASA needs to do, it might be reasonable in some cases to look to NASA, as the agency which first develops and demonstrates the mission, to consider acquiring for some missions time series not dictated by the lifetime of the first mission. In no way is this an attack by the administration on the long-term acquisition agencies. It’s a recognition that we corporately have not provided them with the resources they need to consummate the transitions, and yet the nation needs the measurements.


Is it possible there are some missions that will never transition?

It’s possible. I would say that the presumption is that at least for the next 10 to 15 years, the new measurements that we’ll be demonstrating, we’ll want to be taking long-time series of most of those. But there is no way that NASA can possibly continue all of the capabilities that we’re being asked to demonstrate.


The space policy also calls for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to work with NASA to maintain a program for operational land remote sensing. What does this mean for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission and follow-on efforts?

We’re working very closely with USGS and with the White House to develop a sustained land-measurement remote sensing satellite system. The policy specifically calls for us to get away from approaching land imaging as a set of single missions and put it in the context of a system the same way that the meteorological satellite system is a system. Think of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission as the last of the one-offs.

And it makes eminent sense for NASA to contribute to the design of the overall system and the individual components on a reimbursable basis, but it is clear that USGS is the appropriate place to manage  the requirements.


Obama provided a small increase in Earth science spending in 2010, which allowed you to get going on the Venture-class missions. How is that effort evolving?

With the 2011 climate initiative, we both expanded and accelerated the Venture class. We broke it into two separate lines. Starting in 2011 with selections in early 2012, and every single year, we will be going out with solicitations for one or more Earth Venture Instruments. When you propose it, you don’t have to have a flight opportunity already identified; NASA will work with you to ensure the instruments get flown. We will be publishing common instrument interface specifications so it will be easier for the people who are flying the spacecraft to accommodate them. We expect these instruments to cost $65 million to $90 million.

The other thing that the climate initiative budget request allowed us to do was to accelerate this every-other-year cadence for suborbital and small satellite Venture-class solicitations. So we’re going to go for a small satellite solicitation, $150 million more or less, in the late 2011-early 2012 time frame with selections in 2012. So the instrument is every year, and suborbital and small satellite solicitations are every other year.