Today, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittees on Space and Environment held a joint hearing titled, “Exploring Commercial Opportunities to Maximize Earth Science Investments.” The purpose of the hearing was to explore ways NASA might complement its Earth observations by leveraging commercial remote sensing capabilities.

Ranking Member of the Space Subcommittee, Donna F. Edwards (D-MD), said, “Earth observations support a myriad of applications to meet critical national needs, whether they be related to national security, weather forecasting, agricultural production, land use management, energy production, or protecting human health. Earth observations also support the scientific research and modeling that we hope can someday provide us with a comprehensive understanding of the Earth and its response to natural and human-induced changes.”

She continued, “The collection of Earth observations data has been enabled by sustained Federal investments—investments that I hope we will continue to sustain even in the midst of budgetary constraints. Those investments have enabled the development of a robust ‘value-added’ industry dedicated to turning Earth observations data into usable information that can benefit broad sectors of our economy. Then too, Federal investments in the underlying Earth observations technologies and systems have resulted in capabilities that have enabled a growing commercial remote sensing industry to emerge.
So it makes sense to continuously look for new ways in which we can improve our ability to carry out Earth observations and maximize our Earth Science investments.”

Members and witnesses discussed lessons learned from prior public-private partnerships at NASA, the conditions needed to make any future public-private partnerships successful, and the unique NASA research needs, such as full and open data sharing and data quality and continuity.

Ranking Member of the Environment Subcommittee, Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), emphasized the difference between Earth observations at NASA and NOAA. She said, “NOAA has an operational mission, and their data and information are considered public goods. NASA serves a research mission with different challenges and opportunities to engage the commercial sector. So although there may be an opportunity for NASA to adopt some of NOAA’s commercial policies, there are important distinctions that require careful consideration.”

Dr. Anthony Busalacchi, Professor and Director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland and Co-Chairman of Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space at the National Research Council, stressed the importance of access to data. He said, “Full and open access to data and the opportunity both to replicate research findings and to conduct further research using the same data are critical to scientific research…With respect to access and utilization of its science data, NASA has, as a matter of longstanding policy and practice, archived all science mission data products to ensure long-term usability and to promote wide-spread usage by scientists, educators, decision-makers, and the general public.”

He also discussed the importance and challenges of maintaining data quality and continuity. He quoted a finding in a National Academies Report, Towards New Partnerships in Remote Sensing, which gives further detail on the challenge in creating an observing system capable of trend detection: “Continuity of remote sensing observations over long periods of time is essential for Earth system science and global change research, and it requires that scientists have access to repeated observations obtained over periods of many years…As scientists expand their use of data from both public and private sources, problems may arise in combining remote sensing data from multiple sensors with different capabilities and characteristics.”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said, “Maintaining and enhancing our Earth science capabilities and investments in the years to come will require that we continuously look for new sources, be they international or from the private sector. Indeed, with the growing number of American companies launching and operating space-based remote sensing small satellites, this may be an opportune time to assess the private sector’s ability to complement NASA’s Earth observation systems.”

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