Global Earth Observations (12-8-08)

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Prompted by growing concern about climate change, natural hazards and the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Earth observation initiatives have become an issue of broad concern in Congress. The publication of the National Research Council's report, "Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond," in January 2007 has spurred a number of hearings in the 110th Congress about the state of national and international Earth observation projects. However, revelations that the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) has overrun its budget by at least $3 billion and is behind schedule has made law makers wary of promising funds to new projects.

Recent Action

The Planetary Society’s Roadmap to Space
On November 13, 2008, The Planetary Society released a report entitled “Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Space Exploration in the 21st Century.” The document outlines recommendations regarding the United States’ space exploration program for consideration by the new Administration and Congress. The ideas presented in the roadmap were developed through a series of expert workshops and town hall meetings, and from input from concerned scientists and policymakers.

The Planetary Society proposes that the ultimate goal of the U.S. space program be redefined as human exploration of Mars. Setting flexible intermediate milestones such as conducting the first human voyages outside the Earth-Moon system, to beyond the gravitational influence of Earth, and to near-Earth asteroids, can be used to engage the public by celebrating these scientific achievements. The goal of new human lunar landings by 2020, as established by President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, should be deferred until such missions are an appropriate next step towards achieving a human landing on Mars.

Stressed in the report is the importance of developing international collaborations to maximize global progress in human space exploration. For example, the U.S. should work with its international partners to ensure that the Space Shuttle can be retired in 2010 while still maintaining access to the International Space Station. This will allow the U.S. to focus its resources on developing the Ares and Orion vehicles, both of which make an important contribution to long-term human exploration goals. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should be fully funded at the level of the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 (about $19 billion in FY 2009) and adjusted for inflation in coming years.

Also highlighted in the report is the importance of the space program to understanding the Earth: “Space science research and the observation of Earth from space are perhaps the most significant and productive elements of the nation’s scientific portfolio.” Applications include monitoring global climate, which is key to understanding global climate change. Space exploration also plays a key role in inspiring young people to study science. (11/08)

Previous Action

NASA Turns Fifty But Future Looks Iffy Even with Re-authorization
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began operations on October 1, 1958, almost exactly one year after the launch of Sputnik and about six months after the launch of Explorer 1. There were 21 manned flights, 6 Moon landings and the launch of Skylab with 3 manned visits in the first 20 years. Since then there have been 123 manned shuttle launches, the development of the International Space Station and multiple manned visits to the unfinished station.

In addition to the manned program, NASA has maintained a robust unmanned space exploration program that has mapped the details of the solar system and explored the universe beyond. There are currently 65 unmanned missions that NASA operates or cooperates with other space programs on and 21 new missions that are in the planning stages. The Hubble Space Telescope, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions and the various successful Mars landings are probably among the best known of the unmanned missions that have been focused beyond Earth observations. Observations of Earth from manned and unmanned missions have provided a wealth of understanding about the blue planet and have captivated the public.

NASA’s budget in 1958 was about $89 million (0.1 percent of the total federal budget that year) and in the 1960s, the heyday of the Apollo program, the government spent as much as 5.5 percent or $5.9 billion of the total annual federal budget on NASA. Over the past 38 years, NASA’s budget has ranged between 0.7 to 1 percent of the total federal budget.

At the end of September, Congress passed the NASA Re-authorization bill (H.R. 6063), which would authorize a FY 2009 budget of $20.2 billion for the agency (about 0.6 percent of the federal budget). Unfortunately the continuing resolution passed by Congress at about the same time means that NASA’s budget will decrease to $17.1 billion for FY 2009, a troubling number for an agency whose core missions are already under funded.

The President is expected to sign the NASA Re-authorization bill into law. The measure includes a plan for the continuation of Landsat and re-authorizes the Glory mission to examine the effects of aerosols and solar energy on Earth’s climate. Other provisions deal with lunar exploration, Earth science research, emergency response to near-Earth object threats and provisions for space shuttle flights as well as support from commercial launch and flight services.

For more on the history and highlights of NASA visit the NASA 50th anniversary web site.(9/08)

NASA Authorization Rockets Through Congress
On June 24, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation unanimously approved the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, following the House authorization of (H.R. 6063) on June 18 by a vote of 409-15.  H.R. 6063 was originally introduced by House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Mark Udall (D-CO).

The bill reauthorizes the science, aeronautics, and human space flight programs of NASA for fiscal year (FY) 2009. Most importantly, the House and Senate bills would both provide NASA with a total budget of $19.2 billion and $20.35 billion respectively for FY 2009. This would be about $2 to $3 billion more than the President’s request and would help to cover funding needs for Earth science research.  Commenting on the higher suggested level of funding, Chairman Gordon said, “we need to ensure that NASA has sufficient resources for all of the important tasks that the nation is asking it to carry out.” 

The measure notes the importance of providing more support for the Earth science division, so it can accomplish the research goals set forth in the National Academies Earth science decadal survey. If the measure were enacted then NASA would be required to provide a plan to Congress about how the agency would carryout the decadal survey research priorities.  NASA would also have to provide a plan for ensuring the continuity of Landsat data beyond the Landsat Data Continuity Mission. The bill calls specifically for the re-authorization of the Glory Mission about how aerosols and solar energy affect climate, re-affirms the importance of the Mars Exploration program and the Near Earth Object mission and calls for funding to develop the Deep Space Climate Observatory. 

The bill would also ensure that NASA gives high priority to tornado research and ensuring a skilled workforce for the future. NASA would be asked to make its climate-related research widely available and accessible. Congress wants the agency to follow recommendations from a Government Accountability Office report on climate change censorship and recommendations for data distribution and archiving in the National Academies Earth science decadal survey.

The bill requests a National Academies study “to determine the most appropriate governance structure for United States Earth Observations programs in order to meet evolving United States Earth information needs and facilitate United States participation in global Earth Observations initiatives.” Congress is clearly looking forward to whether the United States needs changes to the organization and leadership of its Earth observation initiatives within NASA and between NASA and other public and private entities.

Chairman Gordon noted that “it is important that we send a strong message to the next Administration—whether it turns out to be a Democratic or a Republican one—that Congress believes that NASA is important and worthy of the nation’s support.”

Supporters of the measure hope that the Senate will be able to approve the bill when it returns from the fourth of July recess and that the President would sign it into law. The increased funding, particularly for the Earth sciences is for fiscal year 2009 which starts on October 1, 2008, so it is important that the strong support and momentum expressed in the House vote, propels the Senate and Administration forward in July.

The full text of H.R. 6063 is available here. (06/08)

International Conference on Earth Observations Highlights Funding Woes
An international conference of more than 70 countries, the European Commission and international scientific organizations gathered in Cape Town, South Africa on November 30th to discuss the status of the "Global Earth Observation System of Systems," or GEOSS. The global effort is meant to weave together a fuller picture of changes in Earth's lands, oceans and atmospheres. The data will be used to examine long-term threats such as climate change, deforestation and drought as well as immediate threats like tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes. GEOSS was initiated in 2005 by the Group of Eight Nations and is 2 year into a 10 year implementation plan.

The global conference will focus additional attention on declines in U.S. Earth observing capabilities. A National Academies report published in January and a Senate hearing in July highlighted the cuts and delays in upcoming Earth observation missions and the significant reduction of Earth observing capabilities over the next decade. In particular the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) jointly managed by NASA, NOAA and the Pentagon and the Landsat Satellite Series jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey are in serious financial trouble. Congress has tried to add funding for these projects in the fiscal year 2008 budget deliberations, however, given the extreme uncertainty in these fiscal deliberations it is unclear whether these programs will be able to effectively move forward. (12-11-07)

AAAS Releases Statement Supporting Earth Observation
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Board of Directors released a statement on April 30th, 2007, on "The Crisis in Earth Observation from Space." The report expressed concern that "the network of satellites upon which the United States and the world have relied for indispensable observations of Earth from space is in jeopardy" due to NASA and NOAA budget cuts and restructuring. It cited these satellites as "essential for weather forecasting, hurricane warning, management of agriculture and forestry, documenting and anticipating the impacts of global climate change, and much more."

The AAAS statement referenced a recent 400 page National Research Council study which also called for the restoration of NOAA and NASA satellites, or else "major gaps in the continuity and quality of the data gathered about the Earth from space" will occur. The report also noted that as of 2005, 60 to 70 percent of space-based Earth observation data was from U.S. satellites and instruments, contributing significantly to U.S. preeminence in atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial Earth science. In order to maintain this scientific advantage, resources must continue to be devoted to Earth observation. The report suggested reinitiating specific key Earth observation capabilities that have been cut from NOAA satellites, accelerating NASA's current launch schedule, and ensuring funding to the 17 highest priority Earth observation missions for the 2010-2020 time period.

Full text of the statement is available here. (6-18-07)

NRC Report on Earth-Observing Priorities
In January, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report entitled "Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond (2007)". The report was requested by NASA, NOAA and the USGS to generate consensus among the Earth and environmental sciences community regarding space-based mission priorities to understand the Earth system over the next decade. Over 100 Earth scientists provided input for the report and they concluded that the U.S. government needs to fund about 17 new Earth observing missions over the next decade.

Unfortunately, as the report notes the annual budget for Earth science within NASA is about $500 million less (in 2006 dollars) than in 2000. NASA has been forced to reduce funding for critical Earth observing missions and the number of instruments on NASA missions will fall by 40 percent by 2010 if additional funding is not provided.

The report recommends increasing funding for Earth observations and spending about $3 billion annually to achieve national priorities with regards to a better understanding of the Earth system. The report provides a prioritized list of recommendations regarding which specific instruments and/or missions to fund and how to distribute the funding over the next decade.

The NRC report is available online as a pdf at (02/16/07)


In 2004, NASA's Office of Earth Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Geography Division asked the National Research Council (NRC) to generate consensus recommendations from the Earth and environmental science and applications communities regarding high-priority research activities in space-based Earth observations. The NRC report was posted in early 2007. First among the Council's 400 pages of recommendations is that "the U.S. government, working in concert with the private sector, academe, the public, and its international partners, should renew its investment in Earth observing systems and restore its leadership in Earth science and applications."

However, despite the critical need for Earth observation systems and the NRC's first-ever Earth science decadal survey, the cost overruns of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and the general budgetary problems that NASA has the manned mission program, makes policymakers wary of promising more funding for satellite-based missions. NPOESS, established by a Presidential Decision Directive in 1994, is a satellite system which will monitor global environmental conditions and to collect and disseminate data related to Earth system processes. However, several hearings in the House and Senate in 2005 and 2006 reveal that NPOESS is at least $3 billion over budget and about three years behind schedule.

Indeed, as some members of Congress have noted, the recommendation made in the NRC report to spend about $3 billion annually on Earth observation projects could have been supported by the cost overruns incurred by NPOESS. In the meantime, however, NASA has been forced to reduce funding for critical Earth observing missions and the number of instruments on NASA missions will fall by 40 percent by 2010 if additional funding is not provided. The decadal survey requests that NASA return to fiscal year 2000 funding for Earth science to get back on track.

Sources: National Research Council, American Association for the Advancement of Science and hearings.

Contributed by Erin Gleeson, 2007 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern, and Paul Schramm, 2007 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on October 8, 2008.