t the Goddard Space Symposium
was critical of the recent National Research Council decadal survey for Earth science and applications from space, which we chaired. At the
Griffin remarked that the Earth scientists have offered a “rather brazen recommendation that more money be allocated to Earth science.” He also argued that Earth science
already is receiving its “fair share” of the NASA budget and that the costs to develop several of the missions recommended by the survey were “low-balled.”
We believe these remarks are the result of fundamental misunderstandings. Moreover, we believe they distract from the survey’s urgent message: a system of Earth observations from space is needed both for science and applications to society – and can be done at an affordable cost. This message was developed and supported by the more than 150 scientists and engineers (from academia and industry), data users, policy
and report reviewers who participated in a careful study that took almost three years to complete.
We did not begin the survey with a goal of asking for more money for Earth sciences, nor were we under any guidelines from the sponsors to stay within a certain budget. Instead, we asked a simple question based on the charge to the survey:
What does it take to provide society with the information required to understand and be proper stewards of our planet?
From more than 100 proposed measurements and missions, we developed a balanced list that included only 17 missions – two for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and 15 for NASA. We then asked the question:
Is the cost reasonable in view of the fiscal constraints currently imposed on the federal government?
We were comforted to know that if Earth science in NASA were restored only to the funding level it had in
2000, then a research and applications program, which provides the required information to support weather, climate, water, energy, agriculture, ecosystem management
and a host of other societal needs, is possible at a cost that is a smaller fraction of the U.S.
gross domestic product than the nation was spending on NASA Earth satellites, science
and applications in 2000. In fact, the additional funds required for NASA Earth science are less than 3 percent
of the current NASA budget, and equivalent to an outlay of less than $2 per person per year in the United States. Surely, this is neither unreasonable nor “brazen.”
Regarding our methodology for estimating costs: We agree that mission advocates should not be the source of cost estimates.
Indeed, we asked experts who were not particular mission advocates, and seasoned mission planners
at the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center,
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Langley Research Center
to provide informal cost analyses. They evaluated the costs of all proposed missions in a consistent and objective manner.
These cost estimates were then reviewed by members of our survey team, some of whom have extensive relevant industrial experience. We note too that some of the external reviewers of the survey had mission management experience; they did not find the cost estimates to be unreasonable for the stated science requirements.
Furthermore, as we noted in the report and as we have explicitly pointed out in our presentations at NASA, NOAA, the Office of Management and Budget,
the Office of Science and Technology Policy
and Congress, the mission costs provided in the report
do not include ground costs such as data analysis and longer-term mission management. But these costs are included in the growth wedge that we recommend in the “Mission Supporting” portion of the budget.
Moreover, we have stated that we must not allow these missions to grow in cost through an inappropriate “open door” extension of requirements that exploit the survey’s recommendations, but go far beyond them. The perfect must not be allowed to be the enemy of the good. In this regard, we have recommended steps to take if costs of a certain mission overrun for whatever reason.
Most important, however, disagreements in the details of cost estimation detract from the urgent message of the survey. The decadal survey is informing NASA, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey,
and the American public about the measurements that are required, and the missions and related activities that must be undertaken, to understand our dynamic planet and apply this understanding to derive benefits that will repay the nation many times over.
We all understand that NASA has many separate, distinct
and important tasks. Thus, the concept of a simple “fair share” is not relevant, and cannot be forced upon the various NASA requirements. Moreover, this view of an agency budget that is a zero-sum game would pit the various programs in NASA against each other within an overall, inadequate
and stagnant funding envelope for the agency.
We respectfully suggest that the
administration and Congress recognize the many tasks required of NASA and fund each of them according to their importance to the nation, not at the expense of other important tasks.
We need knowledge of Earth more than ever. We know that the planet’s environment is changing on all spatial scales – including global, regional and local – and the changes are likely more rapid than at any time in human history. These changes must be measured and understood for the benefit of society. The linked challenges of confronting global environmental changes and addressing a sustainable future are daunting and immediate, but they are not insurmountable. The challenges can be met but only with a new and even more vigorous approach to observing and understanding our changing planet.
There is an urgency to proceed.
Richard Anthes is
president of the University Corp.
for Atmospheric Research. Berrien Moore is
director of the
Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the
University of New Hampshire.