NASA Official Defends Earth Science Spending

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WASHINGTON — A top NASA official told a House panel June 28 that the agency’s budget for Earth science is adequate, but other witnesses, along with Democratic lawmakers, begged to differ.

NASA’s 2008 budget request includes $1.5 billion for Earth-observing satellites and related research, $32 million more than the agency had requested for 2007, according to Michael Freilich, director of the U.S. space agency’s Earth science division.

Appearing at a hearing of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, Freilich defended the request as sufficient to support a balanced program of flight missions, research and analysis, and practical application-oriented projects.

Freilich said NASA’s Earth science program includes 14 Earth science satellites in orbit today, seven in development for launch by 2013 or sooner, and a variety of related research projects.

“It’s my job to get the best science and the best applications from the resources that are made available,” Freilich said.

Richard Anthes, president of the Boulder, Colo.-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, said NASA’s problem is not the quality of its Earth science projects, but the quantity.

“NASA is doing do a good job with what they have but they just don’t have enough,” Anthes said.

Anthes co-chaired a National Research Council panel that earlier this year delivered a 10-year plan for space-based Earth science that called for giving NASA an additional $500 million per year to implement 15 priority missions. He said such an increase is both affordable and necessary to restore NASA’s Earth science buying power to what it was in 2001.

“Two dollars per person per year is what NASA needs additional,” Anthes said. “That’s the cost of a bad cup of coffee.”

Eric Barron, a dean at the University of Texas at Austin who helped write the Earth science decadal survey, said the slate of recommended missions is no pie-in-the-sky wish list. “This is really a list of fundamentals,” he said. “If we fail to implement the decadal survey’s recommendations we will have an [Earth] observing system … that is much less capable than we had at the start of this century.”

Rep. Mark Udall, the Colorado Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, expressed concern that NASA was not living up to its lead role in monitoring the Earth’s changing climate from space. He questioned Freilich at length about how quickly NASA intended to move out on the new 10-year plan for Earth science and what the agency was doing to recover the climate-monitoring capabilities dropped from the National Polar-orbiting Operational Satellite Systems (NPOESS) when the over budget program was restructured last year.

Freilich said NASA would be guided by the National Research Council’s Earth science decadal survey as it approves new missions for development. He said the recommendations are to be used to help shape NASA’s 2009 budget request, which is currently in formulation for release early next year.

As for the loss of climate-monitoring capabilities from the NPOESS satellites, Freilich said NASA has been working closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on various mitigation options and the associated costs. That assessment, he said, is being done at the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), who represents an area near NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and has been pushing his fellow lawmakers this year to boost NASA spending, said he is growing frustrated with those who say the nation cannot afford it.

“We keep hearing time and time again comments that NASA … makes the best efforts possible with the resources available,” he said. “I think that’s a huge cop out.” What’s needed, Lampson said, is the political will to do what is right by federal science programs.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the space and aeronautics subcommittee, said NASA’s record of achievement in Earth science will continue, even if not necessarily at a pace that will satisfy the research community. “Are NASA’s plans for future Earth Science research missions any indication of the agency’s reduced commitment toward a robust program?” Feeney said in a prepared statement. “Emphatically no.”

Members of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, and science subcommittee appear to lean more toward Lampson’s point of view. The subcommittee voted June 11 to provide NASA with $17.6 billion next year, some $290 million more than the White House requested. About $180 million of that increase was earmarked for NASA’s science budget.

More science money also was included in the NASA spending bill that cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee June 28. That bill would provide $150 million more than the White House requested and stipulated that $130 million of the increase be used to bolster Earth science.

President George W. Bush has threatened to veto any spending bills that provide more money than he requested.