American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

House Hearing on FY98 NASA Authorization: Mission to Planet Earth

House Committee on Science
Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
March 19, 1997

Mr. William F. Townsend, Acting Associate Administrator, Office of Mission to Planet Earth, NASA
Mr. Sam Venneri, Chief Technologist, NASA
Dr. Steven Wofsy, Chair, Earth Systems Science Application Advisory Committee
Dr. Stamatios Krimigis, Head, Space Department, Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University
Dr. Ed Hudgins, Director of Regulatory Studies, Cato Institute

Representatives present
Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Ranking Member Bud Cramer (D-AL)
Rep. Walter Capps (D-CA)
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD)
Rep. Thomas Davis (R-VA)
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA)
Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX)
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX)
Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL)
Rep. Bill Luther (D-MN)

To read the full testimony of the witnesses submitted to the committee, visit the House Science Committee website.

Opening remarks
At his first hearing as chair of the House Science Subcommittee on Space, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) enlivened the discussion of the authorization of NASA's Mission to Planet Earthwith a last-minute witness who urged abolishment of the program. The CATO Institute's Edward Hudgins claimed that the program was politically-driven, "a bogus issue based on bad science," and an excuse for NASA to keep asking for money. Subcommittee Democrats protested that they had not been given sufficient notice of this late addition to the witness panel, and Rohrabacher agreed that their complaint was justified. Although Hudgins was the last witness to testify, the other witnesses addressed most of his charges in their testimony.

Rohrabacher, who in the past has called the theory of global warming "at worst...liberal claptrap," declared that he supported scientific research to study "how the planet works," but questioned why the program was requesting a 4% increase over its FY 1997 budget of $1.36 billion at a time when the total NASA budget is declining.

Mr. Townsend began the testimony by explaining the three components of Mission to Planet Earth (MTPE)-- a series of Earth-observing satellites, an advanced data system, and teams of scientists who translate the data into new and useful understanding of fundamental science questions. Scientists have already been able to use data collected over the Pacific to more accurately predict the weather, especially in the southern hemisphere. Scientists believe further data collection will provide them with tools for managing agriculture and forests, information for fishermen and local planners, better weather forecasting, and prediction of climate change.

Townsend noted that the program has changed noticably since its inception, in large part due to suggestions from Congress, especially the House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. For example, at the committee's suggestion, MTPE met with the National Academy of Sciences. This meeting led to the adoption of new technology developments and measures that will provide reductions in cost. Through this meeting and others, "the costs of MTPE through 2000 have been reduced over 60%". MTPE is also working with other federal agencies and 19 foreign countries on five principal themes: land cover and land use change research, seasonal-to-interannual climate variability and prediction, natural hazards research and application, long-term climate variability and change research, and atmospheric ozone research. The results of these studies help not only the scientific community, but also America's economy by reducing damage from natural disasters and increasing the availibility of technology.

Mr. Venneri's testimony focused on the inclusion of advanced technology in MTPE studies. Methods to analyze data may change from a government-run to a federation concept utilizing advanced technology over the next 3-5 years. The levels of data collected are more complex than currently available information management systems and "at full development in 2003, MTPE will be collecting more data in one month than has been collected in the last 20 years." Advanced technology is also used in spacecraft and science instruments. A series of reviews beginning in 1994 produced a strategy that will produce "smaller and less expensive missions by incorporating advanced technology" using highly modular systems.

Dr. Krimigis explained the application of the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) to MTPE. MSX was launched in April 1996, and has "returned a wealth of observations that are vital to the design and implementation of a National Missile Defense Program and to our body of knowledge of the Earth and the Universe." MSX's key objective is to collect background data, such as information about stars, atmosphere, clouds, land and oceans. MSX's episodic data complements NASA missions, which typically collect continuos data. MSX addresses "high-value focused scientific issues", and has been lauded for its hyperspectral imaging capability. This mission is at a critical point of its operation, but no funds have been appropriated for FY 1998. Without funding, "experiments will soon cease operation and there is the risk that the full potential of the Nation's investment will not be realized."

Dr. Wofsy presented the findings of the Earth System Science and Applications Advisory Committee, a committee that provides advice to the Administrator of NASA and Office of MTPE. The committee found that the "programs that make up the MTPE are more important than ever as a principal component of the US Global Change Research Program and as a critical, highly visible part of NASA's mission." The committee recommends a greater number of smaller space missions with focused objectives, carried out over a shorter time span. Dr. Wofsy also expressed concern that recent funding decreases greatly harm and limit the program.

Dr. Hudgins of the Cato Institute, the surprise last-minute addition to the panel, recommended that MTPE not be reauthorized. He views NASA as "wasteful and ineffective, squandering the public's good will, enthusiasm, and tens of billions of dollars." Recently, NASA has seen environmental projects as "potential cash cows. MTPE is the epitome of such an enterprise." He believes the NASA's satellite monitoring of the environment encroaches on the responsibilities of the Environmental Protection Agency, and denounced "the mindset at NASA that still seems to be that any activities that take place in space should be under its jurisdiction and supervision." Hudgins criticized the high costs of space missions, and believes the private sector should gain control of space exploration. Finally, he saw the value of MTPE "based on political considerations rather than real science."

Questions and Answers

To Hudgins' criticism that the "mission itself is of questionable value, based on political considerations rather than real science," Harvard University's Steven Wofsy, chairman of the Earth Systems Science Applications Advisory Committee, responded that the committee found the program to have "very high scientific integrity" and to be "motivated by important environmental and policy issues." During the question-and-answer period, he called Hudgins' remark a "pretty nasty charge with no corroborating evidence." Wofsy noted that NASA has responded "very vigorously and positively" to the committee's concerns, including a caution that the balance of program funding was tipped towards space hardware and away from research and analysis. Also, while Hudgins charged that the program was initially based on "fear of global warming" and that a broader research scope was an example of "mission creep," Wofsy argued that "environmental data gathering has been a part of the program from the beginning." In reply to Hudgins' statement that NASA "muscled in on the territory of EPA," Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX) pointed out that such Earth system research was placed in NASA's purview by the 1958 act that established the space agency.

Sources: Hearing testimony, The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News Number 47: March 27, 1997

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Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs.

Last updated April 26, 1997

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