Earth Observations and Space Policy (11/5/10)

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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. While NASA is well known for its Earth observations, other agencies also collaborate and run observations programs benefitting the geosciences.  These agencies include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and some programs within the Department of Defense.

The 2007 publication of the National Research Council's report, "Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond," pushed the 110th Congress to discuss the state of national and international Earth observation projects. It also marked the first time that the Earth science community has come together to develop a list of priorities for Earth observations. With NASA’s space shuttle being retired in 2010 and stagnant funding for satellite observation mission, the outlook for Earth observations and space programs looks bleak unless a renewed focus is put on these missions.  

Recent Action

USGS Chairs International Charter for Space and Major Disasters
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) held a board meeting of the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters in Washington, DC, from October 4 to 7. The Charter is a global collaboration of public and private entities that operate satellites and provide free and open access to data in the assistance of disaster response. During the Gulf oil spill, for example, the European Space Agency deployed its ENVISAT to image the extent and spread of the spill. The Charter already includes agencies from the U.S., India, China, Europe, and six other nations. The addition of agencies from Russia, Germany, Brazil, and South Korea was discussed at the meeting. Russian membership in particular would add considerable new resources. The Charter board discussed a need to increase its visibility within the global science community, as it offers an excellent data resource. The USGS will serve as the chair of the Charter for the next six months and is joined on the Charter by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
For a list of member agencies, recent activations, and the text of the Charter, see the Charter’s web site.

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Previous Action

Congress Passes NASA Reauthorization Bill (9/10)
Before Congress left for a long break to focus on the upcoming November elections, they passed a NASA reauthorization bill that provides authorized funding for three years and sets out policy for the future of human spaceflight. President Obama received the legislation for his signature on September 30.

The measure would authorize $19 billion for NASA in fiscal year (FY) 2011 and the total authorization increases to $19.96 billion in FY 2013. Science would be authorized at $5.006 billion (with $1.802 billion for Earth Science) in FY 2011 and the authorization would increase to $5.510 billion (with $2.09 billion for Earth Science) in FY 2013.

The legislation focuses primarily on NASA’s human spaceflight program and next steps as the space shuttle is retired. As requested by President Obama, the bill terminates the Constellation program, which includes the Orion crew capsule and Ares rocket series, part of the next generation astronaut transport system that NASA has already spent billions of dollars to develop. It eliminates development of a human spaceflight to Mars, but authorizes as much as $11 billion to reach an asteroid within 10 years. It calls for an additional Space Shuttle launch and authorizes $1.6 billion for commercial companies to begin building rockets capable of sending crews to the International Space Station.

The House Committee on Science and Technology passed their version of the measure, H.R. 5781, in July.  In August, the Senate passed their version, S. 3729.  There were some sharp differences between the two measures, which are not surprising given the challenges that NASA faces in considering the future of U.S. space exploration.
On September 23, the House Science and Technology Committee introduced new compromise language, increasing the scope of the House version regarding human spaceflight. Members of the committee warned that the additional shuttle launch is an unfunded mandate and will likely cannibalize funds from science programs, believe the Senate language is overly prescriptive regarding the design of future rockets, called for reductions of funding for commercial companies, raised concerns about depending on commercial companies for future spaceflight, and decried a 30 percent decrease in funding for education.

In a news story on October 1, suggested the Senate bill favors the civilian solid rocket motor industry because the prescriptions of the measure may only be attainable using solid rocket motors. The reporters quote Senator Orin Hatch from Utah as noting that this bill may help preserve the solid rocket motor industry in northern Utah. This and other components of the measure are likely meant to preserve NASA centers, the aerospace industry and ultimately jobs in various states and districts. It helps to explain why Representative Gabrielle Giffords, chair of the House space and aeronautics subcommittee, opposed the bill, noting that it would “force NASA to build a rocket designed by congress and not by NASA engineers.”

The House Science and Technology Committee did not have time to work out an official compromise with the Senate, so they approved the Senate version while strongly recommending their compromise language to appropriators. The House passed S. 3729 on September 29 and this is the bill that President Obama is expected to sign soon.

President Obama Releases National Space Policy (7/10)
On June 28, President Obama released a new national space policy. The report emphasizes the United States’ continued commitment to the collaborative, responsible, and constructive use of space, as well as the continued development of space systems to benefit national and homeland security. The report details a ‘bold new approach to space exploration,’ calling for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to engage in a program of human and robotic exploration of the solar system. According to the report, in coming years the U.S. will “accelerate the development of satellites to observe and study the Earth’s environment, and conduct research programs to study the Earth’s lands, oceans, and atmosphere in order to study, monitor, and support responses to global climate change and natural disasters.”

Successful Private Rocket Launch and New Plans for Mars (6/10)
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, launched its first successful rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 3. The rocket, a 154-foot and 735,000-pound Falcon 9, reached its target orbit of 155-miles above the Earth's surface. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, called the launch a great success that achieved 100 percent of their objectives.

The launch success comes as President Obama touts commercial spaceflight as the replacement for the NASA human spaceflight program cut in his fiscal year 2011 budget request. Obama’s budget discontinues the Constellation program, which was working on future manned mission to the moon and eventually Mars, and instead increases reliance on commercial spaceflight especially for more immediate access to the International Space Station (ISS). The cuts have forced NASA to develop a new strategic plan for getting to Mars that emphasizes in-orbit refueling stations to reduce the size of the rockets and a nuclear-powered engine.

Many members of Congress fear that the cancellation of NASA’s manned missions and a shift to research, Earth observations and development on heavy lift shuttles and robotics, signals the end of U.S. dominance in human spaceflight. They also worry commercial spaceflight is not a safe or capable replacement. The success of the SpaceX rocket may help assuage these fears. SpaceX plans on launching more test rockets in the next year, and hopes to eventually get a contract with NASA to bring cargo to the ISS.

NASA Earth-Observing Capacity Update (12/09)
On December 7, 2009 NASA officially deactivated the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-10 (GOES-10) after 12 years of successful service in tracking hurricanes and for other Earth-observing missions. NOAA has four GOES in space: GOES-11 and GOES-12, which are in operation; GOES-13, in orbital storage and slated to replace GOES-12 when it is repositioned; and GOES-14, which launched this spring and is undergoing post-launch tests. GOES-P, which is slated to become GOES-15 after launch, has been moved to Kennedy Space Center for final preparations for launch on February 25, 2010. GOES-15 will be the last in the series. The next-generation GOES-R satellite series, set to begin launching in 2015, is expected to double the clarity of today’s GOES imagery and provide at least 20 times more atmospheric observations than current capabilities.

In addition to the GOES system, NASA announced at the fall AGU meeting that the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on the Aqua spacecraft has completed a seven-plus years measurement of the concentration and distribution of carbon dioxide in the mid-troposphere region of Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide concentrations are less homogeneous than model assumptions and the southern hemisphere serves as a sink for carbon dioxide emitted primarily in the northern hemisphere. The carbon dioxide data combined with AIRS’s daily measurements of temperature, water vapor and other gases will help improve our understanding of Earth’s atmosphere and climate change.

NASA Launches Ares I-X Test Rocket (11/09)
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) successfully tested the Ares rocket, the agency’s next generation launch vehicle for human spaceflight in late October.  TIME Magazine’s List of 50 Best Inventions of 2009 called NASA’s Ares rocket the best invention of the year. House Committee on Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) expressed excitement over the test launch. Now Congress must conclude its deliberations on appropriations for NASA’s human spaceflight program and many other science programs and agencies by December 18, 2009, when the continuing resolution expires.

The complexity, size and power of NASA’s Constellation mission (Ares rocket and the Orion crew module) are perhaps best captured by the agency’s own press release regarding the launch. Below is the complete text for interested readers:

“NASA's Ares I-X test rocket lifted off Oct. 28, 2009, at 11:30 a.m. EDT from Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a two-minute powered flight. The flight test lasted about six minutes from its launch from the newly modified Launch Complex 39B until splashdown of the rocket's booster stage nearly 150 miles downrange.

The 327-foot-tall Ares I-X test vehicle produced 2.6 million pounds of thrust to accelerate the rocket to nearly 3 g's and Mach 4.76, just shy of hypersonic speed. It capped its easterly flight at a suborbital altitude of 150,000 feet after the separation of its first stage, a four-segment solid rocket booster.

Parachutes deployed for recovery of the booster and the solid rocket motor, which were recovered at sea and will be towed back to Florida by the booster recovery ship, Freedom Star, for later inspection. The simulated upper stage and Orion crew module, and the launch abort system will not be recovered.

The flight test is expected to provide NASA with an enormous amount of data that will be used to improve the design and safety of the next generation of American spaceflight vehicles, which could again take humans beyond low Earth orbit.”

NASA Signs Agreement with India for Ocean Satellite Data (11/09)
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) signed an agreement with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to use data from the Indian satellite Oceansat-2. Oceansat-2 measures ocean surface wind speeds, atmospheric humidity and temperature to improve understanding of the oceans and ocean-atmosphere interactions. The data is essential for dealing with climate change, weather forecasting, ocean health and Earth system dynamics.

ISRO is part of India’s National Natural Resources Management System, and Oceansat-2 is but one of a large constellation of Earth-observing satellites operated by India for civilian use.

NASA Using Airplanes to Make Up For Satellite Void (10/09)
Without the ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite), NASA needed to find a new way to monitor the Antarctic ice sheet. With the replacement ICESat II not ready to launch until 2014, NASA is turning to airplanes.

In a time of rapid environmental change, it is imperative to sustain continual ice-monitoring to assess the rate and amount of change. A specially outfitted jetliner will conduct surveys of the ice height and the bedrock below. Unlike a satellite, a plane can measure through the ice sheets to quantify the amount of water between the bedrock and ice. NASA hopes to have the ICESat II up and running soon, but will use planes to their advantage to measure some key areas in the interim.

Committee Releases Human Spaceflight Review Summary (9/09)
The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee commissioned by President Obama earlier this year released the executive summary of their report this month. The committee, headed by the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, Norman Augustine, argues for sustained funding for the space shuttle, International Space Station, and human launch capabilities research.

The space station is set to be decommissioned in 2015, but the task force recommends extending use to 2020. However the space shuttle, the only way to get U.S. astronauts to the space station, will retire at the end of fiscal year 2010 with no ready replacement. The task force recommends funding the shuttle through 2011 to complete already scheduled flights. They acknowledge the shuttle has to be retired, but with the best alternatives at least seven years away they suggest looking into commercial options.

A solid investment in a space program, the task force concludes, will spur progress in exploration to reach the end goal of returning to the moon and reaching Mars. International partnerships are highly encouraged as they can strengthen foreign relations and provided needed resources for the program.

The lack of a clear directive on how to develop a robust and meaningful space program angered Space and Innovation Subcommittee Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). She felt the only conclusion the committee reached was the already obvious disparity between NASA funds and their mission directives.

Weather Forecasts of Great Value, NSF Survey Says (7/09)
The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently funded a National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) survey to determine the value of weather forecasts to Americans. The survey showed that Americans place an average value of 10.5 cents on each forecast. This results in the annual value of weather forecasts totaling $31.5 billion, as compared to the $5.1 billion it costs the government and private companies to provide forecasts.

Of the survey respondents, 87 percent said they obtained a weather forecast on average at least once a day. The most popular times to access forecasts were in the early morning, early evening, and late evening. About 33 percent indicated they obtained their forecasts from local television stations, with cable television and radio less popular, and web sites and newspapers least common. NCAR said it should conduct these types of surveys every few years to see how changes in technology may influence where people turn to for their forecasts so they can continue to meet the public’s needs.

Task Force Begins Consideration of NASA Manned Missions (6/09)
The presidential task force set-up to examine the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) human space flight program held their first public meeting on June 17, 2009 in Washington DC. The committee received comments from NASA plus some of its international partners in human space flight, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Space Agency (RSA). There were also presentations from representatives from the aerospace industries, Orbital and SpaceX, as well as an upstart company called Direct Launcher. Direct Launcher supports a new design that would replace the Ares-I Crew Launch Vehicle and the Ares-V Cargo Launch Vehicle with a single “Jupiter” launcher.

Members of Congress, including Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Bill Nelson (D-FL), and David Vitter (R-LA) and Representatives Pete Olson and Ralph Hall, both republicans from Texas, provided remarks or written statements to the committee. The members expressed general support for human space flight, concerns about job losses in human space flight-related NASA centers and industries, and gratitude to the committee for taking on the difficult task of developing a strategy for future human space flight in tough economic times.

Additional public meetings will be held on July 28 in Huntsville, AL and July 30 in Cape Canaveral, FL. The task force hopes to complete their review and submit a report to the Administration in the fall. The public is strongly encouraged to submit their comments about the U.S. human space flight program through the task force web site’s bevy of online tools.

Former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine is the chair of the ten member task force. Other members include former astronauts, scientists, engineers, industry executives and one retired Air Force general. Dr. Christopher Chyba, Professor of Astrophysical Sciences and International Affairs at Princeton University and a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is a member of the task force and affiliated with the geosciences community. His security-related research focuses on nuclear proliferation, nuclear weapons policy and biological terrorism. His planetary science and astrobiology research focuses on the search for life elsewhere in the solar system and he was an associate professor in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University before moving to Princeton.

More information can be found at the Human Space Flight Review website and the public is encouraged to submit their comments or questions via multiple web-based tools provided on their homepage.

Satellite Review in War Supplemental (5/09)
The House and Senate appropriators have approved a war supplemental spending bill for fiscal year 2009 (H.R. 2346) that includes a directive to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to re-assess the costs of a major satellite mission. The accompanying House report (111-105) directs the Department of Commerce through the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS) “to evaluate re-structure options of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and how each option would affect operational weather data and how it is employed by the civil community for severe weather, flood, and fire emergencies, and for research and monitoring climate change.” The NESDIS report is due to Congress within 90 days of enactment and depending on the report results could alter the instruments and specifications of NPOESS, which has been delayed, has cost overruns and has had to eliminate some key instruments for earth observations.

GAO Finds NASA Oversight Too Weak To Avoid Waste (1/09)
The Government Accountability Office released a report on the abilities of the Inspector General for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Inspector General is supposed to reduce waste and save the agency money. NASA’s Inspector General Robert Cobb was rated very poorly by the report and ranked 27th of 30 agency Inspector General offices. Cobb returned about 36 cents per every dollar in the NASA budget and the GAO indicated that Cobb failed to carry out his duties.

The report had been requested by Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN), Chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee and Congressman Brad Miller (D-NC) Chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. Both congressmen want Cobb to be removed and have claimed gross mismanagement and incompetence by the NASA Inspector General.

Poor oversight of the NASA budget is not what the agency needs right now. Many programs are unfunded or under funded and an inefficient return on limited investments will only hurt the entire agency.

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 to conduct space and aeronautical research, development, and flight activities for peaceful purposes in order to maintain the U.S. role as a world leader in aviation and as the preeminent space nation. NASA's mission is to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.

Related to NASAs science and exploration is Earth observation. Global observations of Earth are essential to understanding how the planet is changing and the implications of these changes for society. In the coming decades, society’s prosperity and security will depend increasingly on Earth information, predictions, and warnings, which, in turn, rely fundamentally on sustained observations of the Earth system, linked to land and ocean observations and decision-support structures. The need for Earth observation led to the U.S. initiated Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS). GEOSS touts a broad range of societal benefits, notably:

  • Reducing loss of life and property from natural and human-induced disasters;
  • Understanding environmental factors affecting human health and well-being,
  • Improving the management of energy resources,
  • Understanding, assessing, predicting, mitigating, and adapting to climate variability and change,
  • Improving water resource management through better understanding of the water cycle,
  • Improving weather information, forecasting and warning,
  • Improving the management and protection of terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems,
  • Supporting sustainable agriculture and combating desertification, and
  • Understanding, monitoring and conserving biodiversity.

At the federal level, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) asked the National Research Council (NRC) to generate a “decadal survey” in 2004 to develop the key scientific questions for Earth observation for the period of 2005-2015 and beyond, and to present a prioritized list of space programs, missions, and supporting activities to address these questions.  The U.S. also created The United States Group on Earth Observations (US GEO) in 2005 as a standing subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. To provide a framework for the integration of U.S. Earth observations, USGEO developed the Strategic Plan for the U.S. Integrated Earth Observation System, released in 2005. This strategic plan set forth goals and requirements for U.S. observing systems and contributions to GEOSS.

In 2007 the NRC published the Earth Science and Application from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond. 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." Currently NASA and NOAA both have Earth observation program, NASA’s Earth Observing System and NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Services (NESDIS).

However despite the critical need for Earth observation systems, global initiatives, established programs, and the NRC's first-ever Earth science decadal survey, the increasing expense and general budgetary problems at NASA, makes policymakers wary of promising more funding for satellite-based missions. NOAA’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), was established to monitor the entire planet and provide data for long-range weather and climate forecasts. However, in late 2005 Congress noted that NPOESS is at least $3 billion over budget and about three years behind its 2009 launch date.

In January, 2004, President Bush announced "A Renewed Spirit of Discovery: The President’s Vision for U.S. Space Exploration", a new directive for the Nation’s future in space exploration. A part of the vision was a new commitment to return humans to the Moon by 2020, and, ultimately, to Mars. In response to this policy directive, NASA published, in February 2004, its Vision for Space Exploration, which set specific exploration goals and milestones in accordance with the President's policy directive. By June of 2004, a Presidential Commission on Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy (Aldridge Commission) released a final report instructing NASA on how to implement the administration’s vision. Among its recommendations, the report emphasized increased private sector engagement, and called for an agency-wide reorganization to consolidate some of the agency's science research and development programs.

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.” Stressed in the report is the importance of developing international collaborations to maximize global progress in human space exploration, including the need for the U.S. to work with international partners to ensure that the Space Shuttle can be retired in 2010 while still maintaining access to the International Space Station. It also maintains that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should be fully funded at the level of the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 (H.R. 6063) that became law in October 2008 (Public Law: 110-422) and adjusted for inflation in coming years. Congress did authorize $20.2 billion for NASA operations, education, science, and exploration in fiscal year 2009, almost $2.5 billion more than allocated by either Appropriations Committee.

At the hearing celebrating NASA’s 50 years, the witnesses concluded that in order to remain competitive in space and science in general the U.S. needed to excited younger generations about space, and invest in science education and research. The witnesses concluded that, if adequately funded, NASA could accomplish all its goals related to space exploration, observation, science, and education.

Sources: AGI's Monthly Review

Contributed by Corina Cerovski-Darriau, Rachel Poor, and Linda Rowan, Government Affairs staff; Merilie Reynolds, AGI/AAPG Fall 2008 Intern; Mollie Pettit, AGI/AAPG Fall 2009 Intern; Joey Fiore, AGI/AIPG Summer 2009 Intern; Elizabeth Brown, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern; Elizabeth Huss, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern; and Kiya Wilson, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's Earth Observation Policy Pages and NASA Pages for the110th Congress.

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

Last updated on November 5, 2010