Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science Division. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after the release of the latest decadal survey for the field, the head of NASA’s Earth science program says the agency is making good progress in implementing its recommendations.

Speaking during a town hall session at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union here Dec. 11, Mike Freilich, director of the Earth science division at NASA Headquarters, said the agency had taken to heart the underlying recommendations in the report to fly a mix of large and small missions, including an increasing number of missions that are competitively selected.

“We are moving forward on virtually all of these recommendations,” he told a standing-room-only audience. That includes studies on how to carry out missions to collect measurements known in the report as “targeted observables,” which the report prioritized in favor of specific mission concepts.

The decadal also recommended greater use of competitively selected missions, which NASA carries out in the Earth science program through its Earth Venture program for spacecraft missions and for instruments that can be flown on other spacecraft, including the International Space Station.

“Everything in the decadal can be competed, and many things they said must be competed, and we’re going to do that,” Freilich said.

The agency is implementing one recommendation to use that Earth Venture program to solicit proposals for new missions to collect long-term measurements of key Earth science variables “in a fiscally responsible way,” he said. That new effort, called Earth Venture Continuity, will release its first solicitation by the end of the month.

The decadal also recommended a program of larger competed missions, known as Explorers, with a cost cap of about $350 million versus $150 million for Venture-class missions. Freilich said that NASA is interested in pursuing that program, which he called “Venture Class on steroids,” but that it will likely not start until later in the 10-year period covered by the report.

The near-term priority for the program, he said, is to continue launching the wide range of missions already in development. “Their fundamental recommendation is to stay the course for the next five years or so, and fly off the program of record,” he said of the decadal. He notes that the program has 20 missions scheduled for launch through 2023.

Among those missions scheduled for launch is Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 3, which Freilich said is now scheduled for launch in March 2019 on a SpaceX Dragon cargo mission to the ISS. OCO-3 is one of several Earth science missions that have been targeted for cancellation by White House budget requests for both fiscal year 2018 and 2019, but agency officials said earlier this year they were confident the program would be funded and launched.

Freilich highlighted the growing use of cubesats and other smallsats for Earth science missions, mentioning examples like RainCube, a cubesat equipped with a Ka-band radar that uses a deployable antenna. That spacecraft and others, he said, helped provide unprecedented measurements of a powerful typhoon in the western Pacific Ocean in September.

The division has recently started a smallsat constellation data purchase pilot program, with awards announced in August to DigitalGlobe, Planet and Spire to purchase data from their constellations of spacecraft to determine their applicability for Earth science research. “We’re not saying, ‘This is what we need,’” he said. “We’re saying, ‘What do you have and we’ll tell you how useful it is to us.’”

The mood of the town hall meeting was much more upbeat than last year, when scientists were concerned about potential budget cuts to Earth science and raised questions about the commitment Jim Bridenstine, at the time the nominee to be NASA administrator, had to climate science.

The Earth science program has, so far, avoided those budget cuts, receiving more than $1.9 billion in the fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill that funded NASA. Bridenstine, who spoke at the town hall, promised to maintain “strong” budgets for the program in the future.

“Here at NASA, we are absolutely committed to the Earth science division,” he said, including following the guidance of the decadal survey. “We’re going to try to reduce the uncertainty around climate science, and, of course, we’re going to study sea level rise.”

Bridenstine was also at the town hall to honor Freilich, who is retiring from the agency in February. Bridenstine presented Freilich with a NASA Distinguished Service Medal to recognize his 12-year tenure as head of the Earth science division.

NASA is currently soliciting applications for a new director of the division, and Freilich offered his endorsement of the position at the town hall. “It’s a great job,” he said. “You have a $2 billion a year budget. You have people like you who have fantastic ideas, know how to work together and are passionate about what you do.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...