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Earth Observations and Space Policy (10/5/12)

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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.

President Obama and Congress have given NASA a new direction through the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S.3729; Public Law 111-267), which would shift manned spaceflight and rocket launches to private industry while NASA focuses on future deep space exploration targets. Budgetary confusion from the FY2011 continuing resolution and uncertainty about funding for FY 2011 and FY 2012 are the most recent problems NASA faces and are likely to be addressed in the 112th Congress.

Recent Action

House Republicans Introduce Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2012 (09/12)
Before leaving for recess, Representatives John Culberson (R-TX), Frank Wolf (R-VA), James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Bill Posey (R-FL), Lamar Smith (R-TX), and Pete Olson (R-TX) announced the Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2012. Under the bill, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would be managed by an 11 member board of directors who would be responsible for selecting three candidates to serve as NASA administrator, preparing an annual budget and quadrennial review of current space programs, and releasing an annual report on the health of the U.S. space workforce.

The House of Representatives, Senate, and President of the United States would be responsible for appointing the members of the board of directors who must be “former astronauts or scientists or engineers eminent in the fields of human spaceflight, planetary science, space science, Earth science, and aeronautics, or other scientific, engineering, business, and social science disciplines related to space and aeronautics.” The board of directors would be required under the bill to formulate a budget proposal which “shall be based on the recommendations of the most recent National Research Council decadal surveys.” The bill has not yet been introduced.

NASA Releases Mars Program Planning Group Summary Report (09/12)
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released their Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) summary report. A final report is expected in mid- to late October.

The summary report outlines four options for retrieving samples from Mars while providing flexibility and resiliency in light of NASA’s fiscal challenges. It addresses the options for gradually increasing human involvement in Mars exploration to meet President Obama’s mandate of achieving human exploration of Mars in the 2030s.

UCAR, Weather Coalition Hold Briefing to Call for U.S. Weather Commission (09/12)
In a briefing on September 27, 2012, speakers from the National Weather Service, Global Weather Corporation, Northrop Grumman, and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) addressed a recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, titled “Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None,” and called for the creation of the first U.S. Weather Commission.

The NAS report investigates current challenges facing the National Weather Services (NWS) and recommends solutions to improve it. NWS is a weather monitoring program under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The key challenges identified in the report are using the most advanced technology and science, providing information quickly and efficiently, and partnering with the wealth of organizations which can provide information to NWS. The report recommends the NWS identify and improve its unique capabilities, reorganize its functional structure and collaborate with the growing private sector investigating weather phenomena.

The U.S. Weather Commission as envisioned would advise federal policymakers on setting national priorities for improving weather forecasts and creating a more weather-resilient nation. 

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Previous Action

NASA Lands Curiosity Rover on Mars (08/12)
At 1:32 AM Eastern Standard Time on August 6, 2012 the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) landed the Mars Science Laboratory on the surface of Mars. The rover, known as Curiosity, is NASA’s fourth and largest Mars rover. This achievement was augmented by the success of a new landing system, the sky crane maneuver, where Curiosity was lowered by a rocket-propelled platform.

Curiosity is outfitted with an unprecedented science payload with instruments from Russia, the U.S. and Spain. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) experiment contains a quadrupole mass spectrometer and a gas chromatograph to measure isotopic ratios in rocks and the atmosphere. The Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer will measure traces elements in rocks and soil while using X-ray diffraction and fluorescence to measure bulk compositions. A laser spectrometer called ChemCam can measure elemental concentrations from up to 30 feet away. The Spanish Ministry of Education and Science contributed the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station which measures atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, wind velocity and ultraviolet radiation.

A nuclear generator provided by the Department of Energy (DOE) powers the rover. NASA estimates the generator could last for a full Martian year (687 Earth days) or more, providing a wealth of data on Martian geology.

Briefing on Earth Observations, Science and Services (08/12)
Panel
Moderator: William Hooke, Director, American Meteorological Society Policy Program
Heidi Cullen, Vice President for External Communications and Chief Climate Scientist, Climate Central
Brian Hannegan, Vice President for Environment and Renewables, Electric Power Research Institute
Scott Gudes, Vice President, Legislative Affairs Space Systems and Operations, Lockheed Martin

On August 1, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) held a briefing to report the findings of a workshop on Earth observations, science and services (OSS). The workshop evaluated earth observation programs by federal agencies and how these observations can be incorporated into government and industry policy and research. The briefing was held in light of a National Academies report which discussed funding setbacks for OSS programs. Applications of OSS include resource management, energy, agriculture and defense according to the workshop.  Director of the AMS Policy Program, William Hooke began the briefing by discussing the “explosion of supply” of observatory information since the advent of computers.

Heidi Cullen, Vice President for External Communications and Chief Climate Scientist at Climate Central, began the briefing by discussing the importance of OSS to critical infrastructure by calling it the “critical infrastructure of critical infrastructure.” Much of the critical infrastructure, including power grids, water supply, and resource production and transport, in the U.S. is old and thus more effected to changes in weather and climate according to Cullen. To maintain reliability of these systems, Cullen maintained that monitors “need to stay one step ahead of weather and climate.” She said OSS is essential to this daunting task. Cullen explained that in 1900, a destructive hurricane hit Galveston, Texas resulting in the most lives lost from a weather event in U.S. history. At the time, the storm seemed to come from nowhere, but Cullen maintained that OSS programs could have prevented the 8000 deaths and massive property damage. She cited the Colorado wildfires in July 2012 and nationwide drought in the summer of 2012 as more modern examples of the usefulness of OSS. Data from OSS programs showed low levels of snowpack in February and heat waves in the early summer. Cullen said better “integration of observations in science and systems” would have better prepared farmers and emergency management for these events.

The capabilities of OSS have markedly improved in recent years, according to Cullen and the workshop. She said the 5-day weather forecast is now more accurate than the 3-day forecast was ten years ago. Increased observation has allowed the monitoring of groundwater reserves and allowed scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to witness the exceptional ice-melt in Greenland between July 8 and July 12. Cullen said with hurricane season approaching and in consideration of the four multi-billion dollar weather disasters in 2011, the U.S. “can’t afford” to take OSS for granted.

Brian Hannegan, Vice President for Environment and Renewables at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), discussed how the electric power sector is changing due to changes in weather and climate. EPRI is a non-profit organization researching issues related to the electric power grid funded by a collection of electric power companies. He said the electrical power grids are transitioning to accommodate renewable energy sources and incorporate modern electrical technology. Hannegan said a more modern power grid would be even more “weather sensitive” as it would rely on wind and hydropower as significant sources of energy. Obviously, seasonal winds must be monitored if the U.S. were to incorporate wind energy in its power grid. He added that snowpack levels are important for hydropower as they are an indication of river discharge in spring and summer. Many technologies that reduce emissions like carbon dioxide scrubbers used at industrial and power plants rely on chemical reactions which are strongly affected by temperature, humidity and other weather conditions.

Hannegan explained the role of weather and climate in storing and transporting energy from electric power. He said our current and next generation power grids have “very little capability to store energy.” This results in a critical balance of supply and demand which requires efficient transport of energy. Hannegan said cloud cover, temperature, humidity and severe weather events can restrict the transportation of energy, making Earth OSS vital.

Scott Gudes, Vice President of Legislative Affairs Space Systems and Operations for Lockheed Martin, discussed the role of private industry in Earth OSS. Lockheed Martin is one of the major government contractors when it comes to OSS, building many observational satellites for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. The corporation recently built polar orbiters for both agencies to monitor climate conditions in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Gudes discussed the most recent Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-R) which takes visual and infrared imagery of weather events, maps lightning patterns and monitors space and solar weather. GOES-R has provided a wealth of climate data for scientists and has observed weather events like the 2011 Joplin tornado. Gudes discussed the impact of the automatic cuts to non-defense discretionary programs set to occur in 2013 as mandated in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-25) on OSS programs, saying it will likely decrease investments to this vital service.

During the question and answer portion of the briefing, a guest asked which countries have already begun to focus on incorporating renewable energy to its power grid and how they use OSS programs. Hannegan fielded the question saying Europe is the current leader in the technology and that countries with significant wind power portions of their energy sector utilize hourly forecasts to determine the amount of energy coming from wind farms and adjusting electrical power accordingly. Cullen said the SERVIR camera on the International Space Station was useful for provides useful data for energy infrastructure as well.

Another question was asked about the importance of private-public partnerships given the current budget climate. Hooke discussed the workshop’s findings which emphasized appraising the value of OSS programs from a “non-monetized” view and realizing that saved lives are more important than reducing government spending. Hannegan said private-public partnerships would not even “sidestep” an investment, cost to the industry will be passed on to consumers.

A summary and web cast of this briefing is available at the AMS web site.

Landsat Program Celebrates 40th Anniversary (07/12)
On July 23, 1972, the National Aeronautics and Space Adminisration (NASA) launched the first Landsat satellite. 40 years later, NASA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS)continue to operate and maintain Landsat 5 and 7 and Landsat 8, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), is scheduled to launch in February 2013. The American Geosciences Institute, American Geophysical Union (AGU), Geological Society of America, Soil Science Society of America, and Ball Aerospace sponsored a congressional briefing on the 40th anniversary. Video of the briefing and interviews with USGS Director Marcia McNutt and others can be found on the AGU YouTube account

AGI, AGU, SSSA, and Ball Aerospace Sponsor Briefing Honoring 40th Anniversary of Landsat (07/12)

On July 23, the American Geosciences Institute (AGI), American Geophysical Union (AGU), Soil Science Society of America (SSSA), and Ball Aerospace sponsored a briefing in Rayburn House Office Building to highlight the widespread applicability of the Landsat program to society. The Landsat program, jointly administered by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), currently consists of two Earth-observing satellite missions. The images and data collected by the Landsat program for forty years provide a means for measuring changes in the Earth system and benefit land managers, farmers and ranchers, emergency responders, and professionals in the defense industry.

Mike Freilich, Earth Science Division Director at NASA, gave opening remarks and introduced the speakers - Chris Justice, Professor and Chair of the Department of Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland, Phil Rasmussen, Professor of Sustainable Soils and Precision Agriculture at Utah State University, and Matt Larsen, Associate Director for Climate and Land Use Change at the USGS. A video of the briefing and the speakers' presentations can be found on the AGU web site.

A powerpoint of images and video captured by Landsat satellites created by AIPG/AGI Summer Interns Stephen Ginley, Beth Hoagland, and Krista Rybacki is available here as a compressed file (.zip).

NASA Gets Two Intelligence Telescopes from Military (06/12)
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) donated two telescopes, with 2.4-meter mirrors and 100 times the field of view of the Hubble Space Telescope, to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The NRO, a government agency responsible for controlling American spy satellites, claimed the telescopes no longer served intelligence-collection uses.

Unlike civilian space telescopes, the spy telescopes have a maneuverable secondary mirror that collects more focused images and are capable of holding a broader set of instruments. The state-of-the-art design of the new telescopes would upgrade the capability of NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) project, which has experienced cutbacks due to funneling of resources into the $9 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The JWST will orbit one million miles from Earth and record data on the mid-infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. In addition to JWST, NASA is now equipped with two additional instruments capable of replacing the Hubble Space Telescope, which is projected to expire within the next few years.

Even though characterized as “space qualified,” the new telescopes will require additional cameras and other optic instruments, as well as a scientific program, data analysis resources, and a support staff, before they can be utilized as functioning space telescopes. Although NASA estimates the telescopes could reduce future mission costs by $250 million, the funding necessary to launch one of the new telescopes is not in place. Due to tight budgetary restrictions, it may be at least 12 years before the new satellites begin operating.

Landsat Program Update (06/12)
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the multispectral scanner (MSS) aboard Landsat 5 has been powered back after more than a decade of inactivity and is operating in test mode. Its other data collection instrument, the thematic mapper (TM), experienced an electronic malfunction in November 2011 and flight engineers will only attempt to use it over specific sensor-calibration sites before it completely fails. Landsat 7 was moved out of its normal orbit in late April to avoid a piece of space debris but on June 5, was back in its operating orbit. 

The two satellites are operating well past their expected lifespan at reduced capacity. In 2003, Landsat 7 experienced a hardware failure and that continues to cause a 22 percent loss of data in every image it captures. Landsat 8, or the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, is expected to launch in January 2013. Details on the Landsat Program can be found on the USGS Landsat Missions web site or the NASA Landsat Program web site.

On July 23, the USGS and NASA will recognize the 40th anniversary of the launch of Landsat 1 in 1972. Landsat observations have helped to understand natural hazards, land use patterns, ecosystem changes, agricultural systems and many other issues of societal relevance.

First Commercial Space Vehicle Completes ISS Resupply Mission (05/12)
On May 22, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) launched a Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon supply capsule into orbit from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 3:44 AM. The Dragon capsule orbited, docked and resupplied the International Space Station (ISS) and returned to Earth with ISS refuse on May 31.

As the Dragon capsule approached the station, astronauts conducted navigation and system checks, and evaluated the capability of ISS to communicate with the unmanned vessel. The tests ran smoothly and the capsule was captured by a robotic arm attached to the docking port of the Harmony module on May 25. The Dragon capsule, capable of carrying 7,300 pounds, transported about 1,200 pounds of food and supplies.

SpaceX is the first commercial company to successfully launch a resupply mission to the ISS. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Reauthorization Act (P.L. 111-267) would allow, if necessary, private space vehicles to acquire the task of transporting supplies and astronauts into low-Earth orbit. This would permit NASA to allocate its time and resources to other arenas of space exploration. It should be noted that NASA provided the bulk of the funding to build the rocket and capsule and NASA and the U.S. military are essential for launch and recovery capabilities.

American Meteorological Society Releases Earth Observations Report (05/12)
The American Meteorological Society (AMS) released their “Earth Observations, Science, and Services for the 21st Century” report. The report states Earth observations, science, and services (Earth OSS) “[constitute] a key element of the country’s critical infrastructure.” Earth OSS are critical for economic and national security.

The economic downturn and budget constraints are putting Earth OSS in danger. The report notes the lack of concern of losing Earth OSS capabilities from the public and policy makers. Earth OSS are important for agriculture, energy, transportation, water resource management, public health, and national security in the U.S. economy.

Landsat Imaging Suspended for Additional 90 Days (02/12)
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) announced in February 2012, the suspension of Landsat 5 Earth Imaging Operations for an additional 90 days.  Landsat 5 imaging has been on hold since a transmission component started malfunctioning in November 2011.

The prolonged suspension allows the USGS Flight Operations Team to investigate means of getting the transmission component of the satellite’s Thematic Mapper back online. The USGS said if continued attempts at recovering the component fail then they will attempt to get a second imaging instrument online.  If both attempts fail the USGS will look to decommission the nearly 28 year old satellite.  The USGS hopes to avoid any data gaps by launching Landsat 8 in January 2013 to replace Landsat 5 and supplement the aging Landsat 7.  Further information on Landsat missions can be found on the USGS Landsat Missions web site.       

Senate Committee Discusses NOAA's Potential Satellite Data Gap (11/11)
On November 16, 2011, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a hearing to discuss two potential satellite data gaps and the need for continued innovation in weather forecasting and prediction. Witnesses included Mary Glackin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Todd J. Zinser, the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce, David Trimble of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Real Admiral Cari Thomas of the U.S. Coast Guard, and three individuals from the private sector.

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), jointly operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Defense (DOD), was initially designed as a means for cost savings by combining military and civil remote-sensing efforts. Cost-savings were not achieved, and in 2010 the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy dismantled NPOESS and replaced it with the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), managed by NOAA and NASA, and the Defense Weather Satellite System managed by the military. Both systems will be launched on the same bus, so continued coordination is essential.  The NPOESS Preparatory Program (NPP) was launched in October 2011 as an effort to bridge the gaps between the two systems; however, NOAA is aware of a potential “data gap” in 2016 due to technological setbacks transitioning NPOESS to JPSS.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) produced a report in September 2011, Polar Satellites: Agencies Need to Address Potential Gaps in Weather and Climate Data Coverage, which examined NOAA’s current satellite programs and its efforts to improve its technological innovation and prevent such a data gap. On November 17, 2011, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for 2012 (P.L. 112-55) was passed into law, providing $924 million to continue development of NOAA's JPSS in 2012.

Mars Launches: One for Two in November (11/11)
The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, launched its Phobos-Grunt mission to orbit Mars, land on the Martian moon Phobos, collect a soil sample and return the sample to Earth. Unfortunately after the launch on November 8, 2011, the spacecraft did not fire its rockets to boost it into interplanetary space and Roscosmos was unable to communicate with the spacecraft. With the spacecraft stranded in low Earth orbit, a feedhorn antenna hooked up to a 15-meter diameter deep space communication dish in Perth, Australia has come to the rescue. The European Space Agency (ESA) which operates the dish has re-established some communications with the spacecraft, but neither Roscosmos nor ESA has been able to nudge the spacecraft into a higher Earth orbit yet. A feedhorn is being added to another ESA dish in the Canary Islands, while the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) deep space antenna in Goldstone, California has stopped trying to communicate with Phobos-Grunt in order to concentrate on the latest NASA Mars mission.

The United States successfully launched the Mars Science Laboratory on November 30, 2011. NASA’s Curiosity rover is the largest rover ever sent to Mars by any nation. The nuclear-powered rover is about the size of a passenger vehicle, weighs one ton, includes 10 instruments and costs about $2.5 billion. It will travel about 354 million miles and arrive at Mars in August 2012. Curiosity will use rockets, a parachute, and a sky crane to ensure a precise landing near the Gale Crater on Mars.

NASA Worries About Plutonium Fuel Resources for Space Exploration (11/11)
Resources of plutonium-238, a radioactive isotope used to power unmanned space rovers and probes, are running low in the U.S. and expected to last only through 2022. This important fuel, different from plutonium-239 used for nuclear weapons, has been used for multiple scientific missions into space, including the Voyager spacecraft in the 1970s and the Cassini spacecraft that is now orbiting Saturn. Plutonium-238 production boomed during the Cold War but has since come to a halt. Because the U.S. is the only nation with access to the material, many scientists are worried that a shortage of plutonium may result in fewer space-based scientific missions beyond Mars.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has agreed to split costs with the Department of Energy (DOE) to fund plutonium production by small companies, which could range between $75 million and $90 million over a five year span. However, Congress has not yet agreed on any legislation to allow this to go through. While supporters believe this cost-sharing is an effective collaboration, those in opposition feel that NASA should fund the startup because the project will likely reduce funding from other types of nuclear research within DOE. Given such opposition, experts do not expect production of new plutonium-238 to begin before 2020.

United States Earth Observations in Peril (11/11)
On November 18, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) announced that it has stopped acquiring images from Landsat 5 because of degrading electronics. If this is the end of Landsat 5, then only Landsat 7’s limited imaging capability would be available, and there is limited confidence about the long-term sustainability of Landsat 7’s operation. The Landsat Data Continuity Mission (Landsat 8) is scheduled for launch in January 2013, more than a year from now. Landsat “represents the world's longest continuously acquired collection of space-based moderate-resolution land remote sensing data. Nearly four decades of imagery provides a unique resource for those who work in agriculture, geology, forestry, regional planning, education, mapping, and global change research. Landsat images are also invaluable for emergency response and disaster relief,” according to the mission web site description. Loss of Landsat would be a huge detriment to government, commercial, industrial, academic and educational initiatives that rely on land imaging.

Other Earth-observing missions are in trouble due to a lack of resources. NOAA’s next generation weather satellite, Joint Polar Satellite System is behind schedule and likely to leave a data gap. Senators from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have written a letter asking the Department of Defense (DOD) not to cut about $7 billion for commercial satellite support from GeoEye and DigitalGlobe for the DOD’s Enhanced View program and last but not least, there are growing concerns about cuts to the development of Global Positioning System III (GPS 3), which is the next generation GPS used by more people than ever imagined.

NASA Launches NPP and Considers Rockets (10/11)
On October 28, 2011, NASA successfully launched the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) on a Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base. NPP is a weather and climate satellite that will provide polar orbiting Earth observations for weather forecasting and climate change data.

About a month earlier, NASA announced that it will reconsider Delta 2 rockets for future launches. In 2010, NASA had excluded the Delta 2 rocket, but a recently released NASA Launch Services-2 contract allows Delta 2 as a rocket choice for future launches. This means that NPP may not be the last launch for a Delta 2 rocket.

Delta 2 rockets have launched about 150 times since 1989 with a 98.7 percent reliability record. These rockets were used to launch the first generation Global Positioning System. As the military moved to using Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, the Delta 2 became nearly obsolete because of costs and a lack of mid-size satellites to launch. Recent failures of the Taurus XL rocket (such as Glory satellite in March 2011 and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory in 2009) have caused concern and a reconsideration of the reliable Delta 2 rockets for NASA missions.

House Science Committee Examines Future of Human Spaceflight (09/11)
The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing on September 23, 2011 entitled “NASA Human Spaceflight Past, Present, and Future:  Where Do We Go From Here?” This hearing was called to discuss the issue of sending humans into space during the post-shuttle program era. Witnesses, including Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, agreed that a robust human spaceflight effort is essential to maintaining the strength of our nation. NASA recently announced their design for the Space Launch System, which the witnesses agreed is an important step forward. Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Acting Ranking Member Jerry Costello (D-IL) emphasized that Congress will soon need to examine the objectives and destinations for human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit in order to move forward.

NASA Worries about Space Station and Lunar Sites (08/11)
On August 24, an unmanned Russian rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) failed to reach orbit and crashed in a Siberian forest. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently signed a contract with the Russian Space Agency to use these rockets, made by Soyuz, after the American shuttle fleet was retired in July. The Russian Space Agency said it could delay all manned flights on the Soyuz rockets if the cause for this month’s failure is not determined soon. More astronauts are scheduled to go to the ISS in September and December of 2011. Fortunately, the current roster of researchers on ISS is not short on resources due to Atlantis’ last flight, STS-135. Atlantis brought 11,600 pounds of supplies to the space station and removed 5,700 pounds of materials to be returned to Earth. 

While the Russian and American governments are concerned with connecting with ISS, many private teams are attempting to land on the moon’s surface as soon as next year. Funded in part by Google and the X Prize Foundation, the private entrepreneurs racing to the moon requested guidelines from NASA about how to protect historical sites from several Apollo missions. NASA’s recommendations include approaching Apollo landing sites and artifacts at a tangent to avoid spraying dust and rocket exhaust onto historical equipment. NASA included in the list of recommendations several requests for the explorers to collect and photograph other items left behind by the Apollo missions. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty says the moon is “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty” and therefore the NASA recommendations are nonbinding.

NASA Completes Last Space Shuttle Run (07/11)
The space shuttle Atlantis took one final trip into low Earth orbit and hooked up with the International Space Station in July 2011. The 135th flight of the shuttle (STS-135) ended the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) 30-year shuttle program.  Atlantis brought 11,600 pounds of supplies to the space station and removed 5,700 pounds of materials to be returned to Earth. 

The shuttle program included six orbiters: Columbia (28 missions), Challenger (10 missions), Discovery (39 missions), Atlantis (33 missions), Endeavour (25 missions) and Enterprise (test vehicle on display at Dulles Airport).  Challenger and crew were lost about 73 seconds after liftoff in an explosion on January 28, 1986 and Columbia and crew were lost about 16 minutes before landing in an explosion on January 16, 2003. In fiscal year 2010, the average cost to prepare and launch a shuttle mission was $775 million and the cost to build Endeavour was $1.7 billion in 1991. The total cost of the program was $113.7 billion (not adjusted for inflation). The program never met its objective of routine and inexpensive flights, but it accomplished many other objectives.

The shuttles carried more than three million pounds of cargo, mostly made up by 50 satellites and the major pieces of the International Space Station, into space. Interplanetary craft, Magellan, Galileo and Ulysses were launched from shuttles and astrophysical observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope, Gamma Ray Observatory, Diffuse X-ray Spectrometer and Chandra X-Ray Observatory were deployed from shuttle bays. Shuttles docked with the Russian Mir Space Station and with the International Space Station bringing cargo and crew. Hundreds of experiments were conducted on the orbiters and crews serviced and repaired many satellites. Not to be forgotten are the thousands of photographs and Earth observations completed by the crew members. NASA counts about 100 technology spinoffs from the shuttle program including artificial hearts, land mine detectors, green lubricants, home and automotive insulation, and video stabilization software.

Discovery will retire to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. Enterprise will move to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, Endeavour will retire to the California Science Center in Los Angeles and Atlantis will remain at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex in Florida. Members of the Texas delegation in Congress have requested that a shuttle be retired in or loaned to Texas, probably at the Johnson Space Center Visitor’s Complex in Houston, but NASA has so far not altered their plans.

NASA Deploys Satellite to Map Ocean Salinity (06/11)
On Friday, June 10 the United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched the Aquarius/SAC-D satellite on a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Aquarius, built by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is one of nine instruments on the SAC-D (“Satelite de Aplicaciones Cientificas D”) satellite, which is the fourth satellite mission in a series by the Argentine Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE). Aquarius will measure ocean salinity and should greatly improve our understanding of the oceans and global climate change. Aquarius can detect a change as small as two hundred parts per million, about one-eighth of a teaspoon of salt in a gallon of water.

The other instruments on SAC-D will collect data on wind speed, precipitation, sea ice conditions, water vapor, surface temperatures, atmospheric conditions, aurorae, fires, and other observations. Many of these measurements will complement the global ocean salinity measurements and add to knowledge of Earth system processes. Brazil, Canada, France and Italy provided some of the instruments and other resources for the mission and will be involved in processing the data with NASA and Argentina.

The Delta II launch of SAC-D was the 149th flight of this rocket and only two more launches are planned. Rumors suggest there are components to build five more Delta II rockets and that NASA is talking to the United Launch Alliance about using Delta rockets for future launches. The newer Taurus-XL rocket has failed on two consecutive launches of NASA satellites, causing not only the loss of two major satellites, but also grave concerns about the capabilities of the rocket. NASA and the space community cannot afford any more losses.

NASA IG Blames Launch Delays on “Outside Factors” (06/11)
The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) was conceived to monitor climate systems and to replace several National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellites that are nearing the end of their life cycle. NPOESS has been significantly delayed and recently reorganized into the NASA- NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS).

The NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) was conceived to fill the gap in observations that delays to JPSS has created. The original launch date of NPP was 2006; however, the latest estimate is for a launch date is October 2011. Such delays have already increased project costs by $304 million for a total estimated cost of $864 million. Further delays could jeopardize the continuity of climate and weather data and increase the project cost by another $35 million.  The additional $35 million would be needed to maintain the Delta II rocket system beyond October 2011. NPP is suppose to be the last satellite launch for the Delta II system before it is retired.

NASA’s Inspector General (IG) has released a report auditing the management and progress of the project.  The IG concludes, “NPP has been adversely impacted by factors outside of NASA’s control.” Launch delays were due to late delivery of instruments for the satellite by the Integrated Program Office (IPO). The IG therefore concludes that NASA management has been effective. In fact, management of the project on behalf of NASA has been proactive in mitigating the impact of the late delivery. The IG attributed NASA’s increased project costs to the “no exchange of funds” in the Final Implementation Agreement and questioned NASA officials for not seeking revision in order for the IPO to incur the extra costs. However, “NASA officials said that including language to make partners liable for the cost of delays would be contrary to the collaborative intent of the agreement and could result in a partner’s refusal to participate.” Additionally, NASA officials stated that efforts to amend the agreement would have resulted in further delays.

NASA's Glory Satellite Fails to Launch (03/11)
For the second time in two years, a NASA satellite set to monitor Earth’s climate and perform other Earth observations failed to reach orbit. The $424 million satellite, known as Glory, and its rocket crashed into the Pacific Ocean on March 4. The satellite was equipped with a new Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM) to measure the Sun’s energy output and an Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS) to look at types and amounts of atmospheric aerosols.

It was the first time NASA has used a Taurus XL rocket since the failed launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) in 2009. A NASA review panel assembled after OCO’s plunge in 2009 discovered the cause of the crash to be the rocket’s fairing, a protective nose cone that is supposed to detach once it travels through the Earth’s atmosphere. Orbital Science Corporation, the maker of the Taurus XL, subsequently modified the fairing’s design to prevent another disaster, but based on preliminary reports the fairing is likely to be at fault again.

The loss of Glory may result in a gap in a 32 year record of solar energy output. NASA has a couple of options to avoid this data gap. NASA can assemble a new version of TIM to install on a satellite already under construction or extend the battery life of NASA’s aging TIM, which is on the satellite SORCE, by shutting down the rest of SORCE’s instruments. Europe launched a solar energy monitoring satellite in 2010 called PICARD, but the French team in charge has not released any data so far.

Glory’s crash prolongs the puzzle of aerosol behavior in the atmosphere. While some aerosols reflect radiation, cooling the climate, others, like black carbon, absorb radiation, warming the climate. Atmospheric aerosols are believed to exert an influence on the climate roughly equal to that of greenhouse gases, but that estimate carries a large margin of error. The APS was not only built to monitor the amounts of absorbing and reflecting aerosols, but to clarify what scale of influence aerosols actually have on Earth’s climate.
   
On March 9, NASA announced that Bradley C. Flick, director of the Research and Engineering Directorate at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, CA, will lead the mishap investigation board. He will be joined by six other voting members in gathering information to identify why Glory failed on launch.
 
The implications for NASA’s Earth observing program are stark. Weakened by years of low budgets, a backlog of planned satellites and the loss of two expensive rockets, the program needs to recoup costs for the failed launches and continue with planned launches as Congress and the Administration look to reduce discretionary spending. House Republicans in the 112th Congress are targeting any projects related to climate change science for cuts (see H.R. 1 and AGI’s congressional hearing summaries) and those reduction efforts include programs with NASA’s Earth Science division.

Secretary Salazar Sets the Course for Landsat Program (03/11)
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar discussed the future of the Landsat program and announced plans for the Department of the Interior to become the primary agency responsible for managing the Earth observation satellites on March 21. The President’s fiscal year (FY) 2012 budget request calls for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to become the permanent budgetary and managerial home for future Landsat satellite missions, a position currently held by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA would continue to work in partnership with USGS and would build and launch future satellites.
                         
Landsat satellites use remote sensing technology to capture images and obtain data that is useful for agriculture, emergency response, water management, land use and national security issues. USGS Director Marcia McNutt said that the reorganization would “ensure that we continue to see the land so broadly, so distinctly, so objectively, that we can better understand our lands and manage them more efficiently, based on science, for the benefit of the American people.” Salazar claims the shift will create stability for Landsat stakeholders, such as the company Ball Aerospace where Salazar made the announcement, resulting in reliable and sustained job creation and innovation

There is concern in Congress that the $48 million increase in Landsat funds for USGS in the FY 2012 request has come at the expense of other crucial programs. Some say the shift in responsibility should be paired with a transfer of funds from NASA. The reorganization will require congressional approval before becoming final.

NASA Warns of Inadequate Funding and Time to Accomplish Tasks (01/11)
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released a "Preliminary Report Regarding NASA's Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle"  on January 13, 2011 that states the agency does not have enough funding or time to develop and fly a heavy lift vehicle (HLV) and manned capsule by 2016.

Under the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S.3729; Public Law 111-267), Congress directed NASA to develop a new heavy lift rocket and crew capsule based on previous designs to send crews and supplies into deep space by 2016 as part of the Space Launch System (SLS). However, NASA said in the report that none of the studied design options are feasible under Fiscal Year 2011 funding levels.

The SLS was developed after the proposed cancellation of the Constellation program (Bush-era rocket and space capsule project). The Obama administration has made it clear it wants to shift manned spaceflight and rocket launches to private industry while NASA focuses on future deep space exploration targets. For more information on policy action in the 111th Congress, see AGI's Earth Observations and Space Policy page

Uncertainty about future funding is another source of confusion at the agency. NASA is currently operating at 2010 funding levels under the continuing resolution, and the agency is required to continue all established programs until new legislation is passed. This means $215 million could be spent on the soon-to-be-cancelled Constellation program by the end of February unless Congress takes action.

The report has garnered strong reactions from leaders in Congress, and congressional response remains somewhat divided on the administration’s plan for NASA and spaceflight. Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, issued a statement that condemns the cancelling of the Constellation program and notes the need for discussions with NASA on the future of the human spaceflight program. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee members Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden saying the report gives no specific reasons why none of the design options are affordable. The letter emphasizes that the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 “is not an optional, advisory document: it is the law.”

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Background

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.
Earth observation is related to NASA’s science and exploration. 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 make 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 as part of the Constellation program. 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 2008 House Science and Technology Committee 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.

In 2010 President Obama announced his new national space policy , one that would shift manned spaceflight and rocket launches to private industry while NASA focuses on future deep space exploration targets. He proposed cancelling the Constellation program and developed the Space Launch System (SLS) as a replacement. The President and Congress have directed NASA under SLS to develop a new heavy lift rocket and crew capsule based on previous designs to send crews and supplies into deep space by 2016.

Congress passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S.3729; Public Law 111-267) in October 2010. As requested by Obama, it terminates the Constellation program. There remains much division in Congress about the future of the space program; look for the congressional committees in the 112th to increase oversight as NASA continues to operate with budgetary uncertainty.

Contributed by Linda Rowan, Geoscience Policy staff; Dana Thomas, AGI/AAPG Spring 2011 Intern; Vicki Bierwirth, AGI/AIPG Summer 2011 Intern; Erin Camp, AAPG/AGI Fall 2011 Intern; Krista Rybacki, AIPG/AGI Summer 2012 Intern; Stephen Ginley, AIPG/AGI Summer 2012 Intern; and Kathryn Kynett, AAPG/AGI Fall 2012 Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's Earth Observation Policy Pages and NASA Pages for the111th Congress.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Geoscience Policy.

Last updated on October 5, 2012


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