WASHINGTON — Two climate scientists and a former Republican governor warned the House Science and Technology Committee Feb. 13 that the U.S. Earth-observing satellite system is in danger of collapse without a substantial and immediate reinvestment.
“At a time when the need has never been greater, we are faced with an Earth-observation program that will dramatically diminish over the next five to 10 years,” warned Berrien Moore, director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire.
Moore was testifying as the co-chair of the National Academy of Sciences committee that released a report last month detailing the state of the nation’s aging network of environmental spacecraft and recommending a slate of 17 new missions for the decade ahead.
The report, “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond,” is the first formal 10-year-plan for Earth science and was undertaken over two years ago at the request of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), opening what was his first NASA-focused hearing since becoming chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said he was troubled by the report’s findings and inclined to support its call for spending more money on Earth science in the years ahead.
“The nation is getting ready to spend a lot of money to deal with climate change in the coming years,” Gordon said. “I’m worried that we are going to be ‘flying blind’ if we don’t ensure that America’s Earth observation satellite system is up to the task of continuing to collect critical climate science data needed to guide our policy decisions.”
Gordon said while it would not be easy to find the additional $500 million a year the report urges NASA to spend on Earth science “given the consequences of inaction, we must try.”
NASA plans to spend roughly $1.5 billion a year on Earth science in the years ahead, a figure that Moore told the committee buys the agency about $500 million less program than it could afford in 2000.
“The program can be restored if we can just get back to the year 2000 levels,” Moore said.
NASA’s 2008 budget request, sent to Congress Feb. 5, seeks 2-percent to 3- percent increases for Earth science in 2008, 2009 and 2010, but forecasts spending reductions in 2011 and 2012, a point that alarms.
“By 2012, the president’s budget will leave NASA Earth science with 50 percent less buying power compared to 2000,” he said.
Moore said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget request appears inadequate to solve the cost growth on its polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellite programs, let alone to undertake the lead role on two of the report’s 17 recommended missions. NASA would be responsible for the rest.
Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the committee’s ranking Republican, said he too was troubled by the report’s findings but also was concerned that NASA does not have the money to fully implement the report’s recommendations.
“It’s no mystery to anyone in this room that NASA is struggling to afford its current slate of programs,” Hall said. “And redirecting funding from any of these activities [to Earth science] is not an option.” Hall said that absent a top-level increase for NASA, Earth science funding would likely remain “status quo.”
Hall pressed the witnesses to identify which of the 17 missions rank highest in the absence of the funding needed to undertake them all.
On that issue, there were no crisp answers. Moore and Richard Anthese, president of the Boulder-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and a co-chair of the decadal survey, talked about the importance of monitoring carbon emissions, soil moisture, precipitation and sea temperatures.
Former Wyoming Gov. James Geringer, to whom Hall initially directed his question, said he thought it especially critical the government heed the report’s recommendation to put the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in charge of coordinating U.S. Earth observation programs.
Moore said during the hearing that while 17 missions over 10 years might seem like a lot “by focusing on smaller mission and avoiding large, multi-instrument platforms … the goals can be achieved for a reasonable investment.”
The report calls for four missions between 2010 and 2013, only one of which costs more than $300 million.
“I understand the budget issue and the budget crunch, but the fact remains that the observation needs exist,” Moore said.
In an apparent concession, Moore later said that NASA could “send the message we are proceeding to implement the necessary Earth observation program” by spending $70 million a year building a technology base for the first seven of the 15 recommended missions.
Anthese also told lawmakers the issue was not about “money and decreasing budgets” but about doing a job for society that needs to be done.
Anthese, who is currently serving as the president of the American Meteorological Society, said that if the present funding trends continue, not only would pure science suffer as a result, but so would the practical applications of Earth observation. Weather forecasting — much improved in recent years with the aid of space-based instruments — could become less accurate, Anthese said, if U.S. satellites go dark with no replacements on the way.
“We are actually in danger, if these observations continue to decrease, of losing that improving warning and forecast capability,” he said.
Anthese and Moore also testified that last year’s restructuring of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) as a result of its cost overruns was a setback for climatologists because a number of important climate-monitoring capabilities were dropped. The report recommended adding some of these capabilities back to the planned satellite system or finding other means of making the measurements.
Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) said he shared Anthese and Moore’s concerns that the problems on NPOESS have made matters worse for climatologists. “I am very worried about the removal of some of the climate sensors and clearly we are not going to have an optimized system,” Ehlers said. “They were removed simply because the cost of the program got too great and we had to cut somewhere.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) pointed out that what the U.S. government has spent on NPOESS overruns — about $3 billion — would have been sufficient to cover the first six years of additional NASA Earth science funding called for in the report.
No U.S. government officials were called to testify at the hearing. But NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, speaking at a National Space Club luncheon the week before, delivered a brief pre-buttal of the report’s central recommendation.
“I want you all to make sure that your pulse rate doesn’t rise exorbitantly. A group of discipline specialists have recommended in all solemnity that their discipline needs more money. I am sure you are shocked to discover gambling in this casino, right?” Griffin said. “Leaving that aside, of course, I take very seriously the prioritization of tasks to be accomplished in the decadal survey and we will follow that just as closely as possible.”
Griffin said that when he took office in April 2005, he made a point of restoring some of the Earth science cuts made under his predecessor and that as a result Earth science today gets about 28 percent of NASA’s science budget, or “slightly more than a fourth for a portfolio that contains four disciplines.”
Griffin said the decadal survey would “help shape [NASA’s] programs” but said the agency could not afford the extra $500 million a year called for in the report.
“I don’t want people to let their imaginations take flight with the idea there’s going to be extra billions put into the program because there aren’t extra billions to be had,” he said. “But as in our other disciplines, we will use that decadal to set our science mission priorities.”