WASHINGTON — NASA inaugurated a public center designed to highlight the information provided by its fleet of Earth science spacecraft, although future missions face budgetary challenges.
NASA held a ribbon-cutting ceremony June 21 for the Earth Information Center, located in a previously vacant lobby on the ground floor of its headquarters building here. The center, which will be open to the public on weekdays starting June 26, features interactive displays and exhibits showing data collected by NASA and other civil government spacecraft on the atmosphere, oceans and land.
“This vital, life-saving data is here, but do folks really know how to access it? That’s why we’re gathered here,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in remarks at the ceremony.
Nelson said the center supports a mandate by the Biden administration to make such data more widely available. He described the inspiration for the center as NASA’s mission control centers that bring together all of a mission’s data into one place. “I said, why can’t we do this with all this information from all of our assets that are up there, bring it all together in a user-friendly way?”
The center, he said, is part of a broader strategy to share NASA Earth science information with other agencies to aid in decision making. Several of those agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), participated in the event.
“The Earth Information Center will play such a critical role in sharing environmental data with communities to help them make more informed decisions on future climate risks. This is a priority for FEMA,” said Erik Hooks, deputy administrator of FEMA.
Another attendee of the event was Dwane Roth, a Kansas farmer who has been using NASA data to make better use of water to grow crops. “I never thought before, in my boots on the ground, that I’d be able to use satellites in space to help me make better decisions,” he said.
Nelson, in an interview after the ceremony, called the opening of the center a “major first step” in his vision for it. It will be improved, he said, with data from several new missions that recently launches as well as long-term plans for the Earth System Observatory of missions recommended by the Earth science decadal survey five years ago. “It’s going to be just the most exquisite and complete information that Earthlings have ever had about what’s happening to our planet.”
However, the future of the Earth System Observatory and other NASA science missions is in flux. NASA requested a 7% budget increase in its fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, but spending caps that were part of a debt-ceiling agreement called the Fiscal Responsibility Act enacted in early June limit overall non-defense discretionary spending at 2023 levels.
“We recognize that it’s unlikely we will get the full request, and we know that’s going to create challenges for us in the future,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy told two National Academies committee June 7.
Those concerns have been exacerbated by spending allocations by the House Appropriations Committee that are significantly below 2023 levels. “While the Fiscal Responsibility Act set the topline spending limit, it does not require that we mark up our bills to that level,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), chair of the committee, said at a June 14 markup of subcommittee spending levels known as 302(b) allocations. “The debt ceiling bill set a ceiling, not a floor, for fiscal year 2024 bills.”
That markup approved 302(b) allocations that include $58.7 billion for the overall commerce, justice and science (CJS) spending bill, which includes NASA, the Departments of Commerce and Justice and the National Science Foundation, among other agencies. That is 28% less than fiscal year 2023.
House appropriators have not yet marked up a draft CJS spending bill, but the lower allocation suggests the potential for significant cuts. Even before the debt-ceiling deal, Nelson warned of challenges with spending on science missions in general, citing demands from Mars Sample Return.
Nelson said he remained hopeful that Earth science and other missions would remain funded, but some might be delayed. “Depending on where the appropriations comes out, some science missions will have to be stretched out, but we will still get them done,” he said. “It’s wait and see what the final appropriation is.”
He said he has not yet talked with appropriators regarding which missions should be prioritized. Others in the agency, though, are taking steps to prepare for possible delays.
At a June 21 meeting of the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said NASA would delay the release of a call for proposals for the next New Frontiers mission, which had been scheduled for November, citing uncertainty about the effects of the debt-ceiling deal. Delays for future Discovery missions are also likely, she added.
Nelson said he hopes NASA could at least come close to the funding it received in fiscal year 2023, adding that the agency might consider asking Congress to fund some efforts though a supplemental spending bill. That included, he said, the $180 million NASA requested to start work on an International Space Station deorbit vehicle.
“It’s the facts of life,” he said, arguing that the spending caps were better than having the nation go into default on its debt. “So, we’ll live with it, but some science missions will have to be stretched out.”