NASA Budget for Earth Science Lags Behind Rising Expectations

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SAN FRANCISCO — Over the past decade, NASA has convinced the White House, Congress and the public of the importance of investigating the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land from space.

That success has led to increasing pressure to extend NASA’s Earth monitoring program by launching new spacecraft and instruments, but not to the funding needed to carry out the new missions, said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division at the agency’s Washington headquarters.

“There is relentless pressure to expand the scope of our contributions,” Freilich said Dec. 17, during a meeting here of the American Geophysical Union. “People want us to do more. They for some reason don’t see a way of getting us additional resources.”

Those funding constraints, coupled with technical issues, will prevent the Earth Science Division from launching any new spacecraft until late in 2010. NASA plans to launch the Glory climate-monitoring spacecraft in November and the joint U.S.-Argentine Aquarius sea surface salinity mission in December, Freilich said. Both missions were supposed to have launched by now but are behind schedule due to delays in the manufacture of the spacecraft and instruments. Similarly, the NASA-led precursor to the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), which previously had been slated to launch in 2009, is now expected to launch in late 2011. The most recent delay in the NPOESS Preparatory Project is the result of problems with a circuit board in one of the spacecraft’s five sensors, the Cross-track Infrared Sounder, Freilich said.

“There is no way to sugar-coat the fact that we have had a tough year in mission launches and mission developments,” Freilich said. Last February, NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) was destroyed when the payload fairing on a Taurus XL rocket failed to detach. The Earth Science Division is planning for a possible OCO replacement. “We have every expectation that we will be getting direction for an OCO reflight when the president’s budget is announced in February,” Freilich said. Congress already included a $50 million down payment for the mission in a 2010 omnibus spending bill President Barack Obama signed Dec. 16.

If an OCO replacement is launched, the spacecraft would be included in the A-train, the constellation of Earth-observing satellites that orbit the globe in a tight formation to obtain sequential measurements, said Cheryl Yuhas, NASA’s program executive for Earth science operating missions.

Until the new spacecraft are launched, NASA will continue to manage a fleet of aging spacecraft. “One of the unifying features of our constellation is that our missions are old,” Freilich said. “Almost all of them are beyond their design lifetime. Some of them are way beyond their design lifetime.”

Late in 2009, two of the 15 Earth science missions ended. In October, the last functioning laser quit operating on the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat). In November, the 10-year-old QuikScat mission concluded when the instrument used to measure ocean winds stopped working.

All the remaining Earth science missions that are past their specified lifetime will receive funding and support for at least two more years. Those missions include CloudSat, the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, Earth Observing Mission-1 and the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission, as well as the Earth Observing System missions Jason-1, Aqua, Aura, Terra, Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment, and Active Cavity Radiometer Irradiance Monitor Satellite (ACRIMSat). The missions passed a senior review to evaluate the health of instruments and allocate resources to continue operations, Yuhas said. However, the ACRIMSat team will conduct additional work on instrument calibration, Freilich said.

Looking ahead, Freilich said NASA is seeking to follow the recommendations of the first Earth science decadal survey, a 10-year plan for space-based observation drafted by the National Academy of Science, by emphasizing not only flight operations but also research, applications and technology development. 

The decadal survey, however, which lists 15 high-priority Earth science missions, also calls for adding $500 million or more annually to NASA’s $1.4 billion Earth science budget. Freilich and others have estimated previously that doing all 15 missions by 2020 would require spending as much as $4 billion during peak development years. Under the five-year plan Obama sent Congress last February, NASA’s Earth science budget would grow to only $1.65 billion by 2014.

“Frankly, we’ve got to come up with an executable program for the future,” Freilich said. “The decadal survey objectives were great, but they require a much larger budget. There is no point hitting our heads against a wall and trying to do more than we can do well.”

One of those decadal survey missions, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, scheduled to launch in December 2012, has been expanded to include a thermal infrared sensor. “We were given $10 million from the generosity of Congress to make that addition which cost about $160 million,” Freilich said.

In contrast, budgetary pressures are forcing the space agency to scrap plans to include a low-inclination orbiter as part of the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, a joint U.S.-Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency effort. “The Global Precipitation mission continues on track with the core observatory which will launch in July of 2013,” Freilich said. “Changes in agency budgeting practices, where they are asking us to budget for what it really is going to cost, forced me to de-scope GPM so that the low inclination orbiter now is no longer fully funded. We are, however, building the instrument, and we have money for its integration on a partner spacecraft. We have money for all the data downlink and data processing associated with it. We are going to be working next year hard to find a partner to fly the mission.”

Two other decadal survey missions, the Soil Moisture Active-Passive and ICESat-2, are well under way, Freilich said, although their launches have slipped slightly, to 2015.

Japan’s Global Change Observation Mission-Water spacecraft is expected to move into the A-train’s lead position after its scheduled launch in 2012, Freilich said. That is the position that OCO would have occupied.

In another change in the A-train, France’s Parasol satellite is now flying at a lower orbit than the other spacecraft. “Earlier this month, Parasol dropped down so it is just under the A-train because it is running low on fuel to maintain its position,” Freilich said. Glory is scheduled to move into Parasol’s location, Yuhas added.