U.S. Urged To Name One Agency To Lead Climate Research

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  Space News Business

U.S. Urged To Name One Agency To Lead Climate Research

By BECKY IANNOTTA
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 01 April 2009
04:06 pm ET






WASHINGTON
— The U.S government should identify one federal agency to take the lead in climate monitoring and ensure the responsibility comes with an adequate budget and oversight, two scientists told members of Congress at a March 19 hearing.

Rick Anthes and Berrien Moore, co-chairs of a National Research Council committee that developed a 10-year plan for space-based Earth observation in 2007 known as the Earth science decadal survey, said the existing partnership between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is too ambiguous to be truly effective.

Neither agency has the budget or the mandate to conduct long-term, sustained climate observations, Anthes, president of the Boulder, Colo.-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, told members of the House Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee.

“One agency must be given the responsibility and the budget to do these long-term sustained observations, not rely on good will between the two agencies, cooperation between the administrators of the two agencies, relying on foreign governments to chip in and that kind of thing,” Anthes said.

It’s ad hoc, we depend on good will and there’s no national plan, commitment or responsibility assigned to this.”

NASA and NOAA have partnered for decades on polar-orbiting and geostationary environmental satellite missions aimed at weather monitoring. NASA has typically overseen procurement and development of the spacecraft before turning them over to NOAA to operate them.

However, for certain programs it isn’t clear which agency should have the lead. NASA in recent years has invested in research satellites that have proven valuable for NOAA weather forecasters, but transitioning these programs from research to operational status – where presumably NOAA would take primary funding responsibility – has proven difficult. This has been the case, for example, with the U.S.-French Jason series of ocean-altimetry satellites.

Another example is the U.S. National Polar-orbiting Operational Satellite System (NPOESS), a collaboration of NOAA and the U.S. Department of Defense, with NASA as a junior partner. The primary mission of NPOESS is to collect data for civil and military weather forecasters; long-term climate monitoring was added when it became clear that NASA would not have the budget to continue making the necessary measurements using dedicated platforms.

But NPOESS was restructured in 2006 due to massive cost growth and as a result, several of the system’s planned climate monitoring sensors were scrapped. Although some of those instruments have been restored, NASA is still under pressure to find flight opportunities for the others.

“Management by a committee, if you will, is very difficult,” said
Moore
executive director of Princeton, N.J.-based Climate Central. “I don’t know how to go forward with that because I think it’s a fundamental problem in the way we actually structured [the program] to begin with.”

With President Barack Obama pledging to put global climate monitoring on the front burner, scientists hope to see more money in upcoming budget requests to pay for 15 NASA missions and two NOAA missions identified as priorities in the decadal survey.

The cost of those missions has grown since the survey was released in 2007, and only one of the top four missions might be launched in their targeted 2010 to 2013 timeframe. All 17 missions identified in the decadal survey were recommended for launch by
2020, a
scenario that NASA officials view as impossible.

The top four missions were considered the easiest to accomplish by 2013,
Moore
said, adding that he has been surprised that cost estimates for those missions have grown. The survey, he said, recommended missions facing cost increases be pushed aside to a “breakdown lane” to allow other missions to continue moving forward.

Meanwhile, Anthes said the decadal survey outlined a best-case scenario with adequate funding and no delays in getting started on the missions. According to the survey, implementing the recommendations would require NASA to devote about $2 billion a year on Earth science. NASA’s 2009 Earth science budget is about $1.4 billion.

It would be easy to blame inadequate funding for the slow pace of the decadal missions, Anthes said, but mission creep also has pushed estimated costs well beyond figures included in the decadal survey.

The estimates “were better than ballpark and they had some margin assigned to them but evidently not enough,” Anthes said. “Once you fund one and you say you want to do this, people start wanting to embellish the missions, they want to add more stuff and make it a little bit better, and a little better and a little better and you get mission creep.”

A mission called Clarreo, for example, was identified in the survey as a small, $260 million mission with three small satellites deploying up to three instruments to take benchmarking measurements to use in future detection, projection and attribution of climate changes. The mission now being proposed has at least 11 instruments, according to a presentation from an October workshop here. NASA’s
Langley
Research
Center
in
Hampton
,
Va.
, is heading up Clarreo.

A Clarreo mission concept review, during which NASA will settle on the scope and proposed price of the mission, has not yet been conducted.

Mike Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, said there is a “healthy tension between capabilities and resources” available for the decadal survey missions and said NASA is going through the natural process of asking what it would take to gain additional capabilities before settling on the scope and price.

NASA’s preliminary internal estimates for the decadal survey missions were higher than those in the decadal survey, Freilich said.

Clarreo
, for example, was reviewed by many people with technical expertise who determined the mission would cost more than twice the $260 million estimate in the decadal survey.

Clarreo is probably the most egregiously underestimated one in the decadal survey,” Freilich said.

To stem rising program costs across the board, Anthes recommended Congress first require estimates from experts not advocating for the missions and then hold agencies accountable for cost overruns.

“There ought to be people held responsible, i.e. lose their jobs, when something goes over three times or four times the estimate,” Anthes said.