American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Review of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth Program

Prepared by Jenna Minicucci, Government Affairs Intern
July 7, 1997

Note: At the request of the Geological Society of America's Geology and Public Policy Committee, AGI is undertaking a series of federal agency and program reviews to assess their impact on the geosciences.


NASA's Mission to Planet Earth program (MTPE) will be a great asset to all of Earth science, although it will benefit some subdisciplines more than others, particularly as it has evolved. The program calls for coherent study of the Earth system with the long term goals of separating the human influence on climate change and the Earth system in general from natural influences and processes, improving weather prediction capabilities, and augmenting data collection and distribution systems. Mapping and land surface movement observation initiatives are planned and will directly benefit the geoscience field. Also, the entire scientific community will benefit from the development of more accurate models to represent ocean-land-atmosphere interaction. In addition, the development of EOSDIS, the Earth Observing System Data and Information System, has applicability in all areas of science in addition to industry and the private sector. Data storage and distribution systems are becoming increasingly valuable as we continue to amass information and require consultation and background to advance our own research initiatives. The focus of the MTPE initiative has changed since the program's introduction in 1987, largely due to Congressional prerogatives. Because of governmental pressures to retain only those components of the initiative which speak directly to pressing public policy decisions, the programs focused primarily on tectonics and stratigraphy were scrapped in favor of an overall program with an increased emphasis on climate change. While the Mission to Planet Earth initiative will benefit the geoscience community, the program as it currently stands is not as valuable as it once was to the geoscience fields.

The impetus for a Mission to Planet Earth initiative came out of NASA's development of the Earth System Science concept in 1986. The goal of Earth System Science (ESS) is "to obtain a scientific understanding of the entire Earth system on a global scale by describing how its component parts and their interactions have evolved, how they function, and how they may be expected to continue to evolve on all timescales. Fundamental to this approach is a view of the Earth system as a set of interacting processes operating on a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, rather than as a collection of individual components." The MTPE, with its all-encompassing approach to Earth science, has become the physical representation of the Earth System Science theory.

Swallowing $1.2 billion of its $1.9 billion budget, the Mission to Planet Earth forms the backbone of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). The program was established as a Presidential Initiative in the FY 1990 budget, confirming federal support of the research needed to characterize and understand global environmental change and to provide answers to important questions about the Earth system, how it is changing, and the implications of global change for society and the natural ecosystems and managed resource systems on which society depends. The MTPE is the chief vehicle through which the USGCRP expects to achieve these goals.

NASA's Mission To Planet Earth

Since its inception, the Mission to Planet Earth has not changed a great deal, although the changes made have largely been the result of Congressional recommendations and budgetary priorities. The goal of MTPE is to understand the total Earth system and the effects of natural and human-induced changes on the planet's environment. The initiative hopes to provide the scientific foundation needed for complex policy choices that lie ahead on the road to sustainable development. A chief component of MTPE is the Earth Observing System (EOS), a program of multiple spacecraft designed to provide a fifteen year set of the key parameters needed to understand global climate change. MTPE also provides for the development of an integrated data system capable of storing the data collected as well as making it accessible to scientists and students around the world. EOSDIS, the Earth Observing System Data and Information System, went on line in 1994. The initiative also includes an educational focus, with its Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment Program (GLOBE). This program connects scientific discovery with the education process by linking K-12 students, teachers, and scientists from around the world together to make Earth-related measurements and share the resulting data.

In the 1995 Fact Book released for the MTPE, the key areas of study were listed as: water and energy cycles, oceans, chemistry of the atmosphere, land surfaces, water and ecosystem processes, glaciers and polar ice sheets, and the solid Earth. Satellites were to track Earth surface movements for nearly twenty years in order to increase our understanding of earthquakes. The Fact Books released in 1996 and 1997 listed the same areas of focus, including enhancement of our current mapping capabilities. There has been somewhat of a shift in focus within the program, to emphasize the climate change related initiatives, largely due to Congressional recommendations. Thus, the solid Earth related programs have been reduced in number and scale. In the 1997 issued missions list, only two out of twenty-one described missions scheduled bear a direct relation to geoscience. LAGEOS-2, a joint effort with Italy, is to focus on "crustal motion and Earth rotation." And the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (slated for 2000) aims to produce precise digital elevation models of most of the Earth's surface. The balance of the missions relate primarily to atmospheric chemistry and the more popular climate change parameters of ozone and carbon dioxide. A survey of Congressional hearings included below held to address the aims of MTPE and its budgetary requirements makes it quite clear why these focal shifts occurred.

Missions Scheduled

Mission (with launch dates) Area of Study
Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS)
-1978, 1991, 1996, 2000
Ozone measurements (w/ Russia & Japan)
Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS) -1984 Radiation budget, aerosols, ozone
Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) -1991 Upper atmospheric chemistry (w/ U.K. &
ATLAS Series - 1992-1994 Shuttle experiments on the atmosphere and
effects of the Sun (w/ Germany, Belgium, &
TOPEX/ Poseidon - 1992 Ocean circulation (w/ France)
LAGEOS-2 - 1992 Crustal motion and Earth rotation (w/ Italy)
Space Radar Laboratory 1&2 Missions - 1994 Synthetic aperture radar scans of the Earth's
surface to classify vegetation and penetrate
loose ground cover (w/ Germany & Italy)
Optical Transient Detector (OTD) - 1995 Lightning tracking experiment (w/
commercial firm)
NASA Scatterometer (NSCAT) - 1996 Ocean surface wind speed & direction (w/
SEASTAR - 1997 Ocean biological productivity
Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) - 1997 Tropical rainfall and storms (w/ Japan)
Landsat-7 - 1998 Land surface features & changes (high
EOS-AM Series - 1998 Atmospheric/surface/solar processes
controlling fresh water resources and
ecological processes affecting global climate
(w/ Japan and Canada)
EOS-ACRIM Flights - 1998 Changes in total solar output (partner TBD)
EOS-Altimetry Series - 1999, 2002 / Sea Winds - 1999 Role of oceans and ocean winds in climate
system and interaction with atmosphere (w/
France & Japan)
EOS-PM Series - 2000 Causes of climate variations and basis for
improvements in long-term weather and
climate prediction (w/ Japan & Brazil)
EOS-Chemistry Series - 2002 / SAGE - 1998, 2001 Behavior of ozone, other greenhouse gases;
aerosols and their impact on global climate;
and regional and global studies of pollution
(w/ Japan, U.K., and Russia)
EOS SOLSTICE Flights - 2002 Changes in ultraviolet radiation output from
the Sun
New Millennium Program missions - 1999 Technology demonstration missions for
advanced instruments to reduce the cost of
the next EOS series and other missions
Earth System Science Pathfinder missions - 2000 Small satellites for new science
measurements; low-cost, rapid development
missions using innovative academia/
industry partnerships
Shuttle Radar Topography Mission - 2000 Shuttle-based synthetic aperture radar flight
to produce precise digital elevation models
of most of the Earth's surface; U.S./German
partnership (w/ NASA, DOD, & USGS)

Budget Information

The largest budget element of the Mission to Planet Earth is the Earth Observing System (EOS). Estimates for the cost of EOS through the year 2000 were given in 1996 as $6.8 billion, and revised in 1997 to $6.7 billion. Post-2000, the estimated costs will be reduced by approximately 30 percent through a strategy of technology infusion and interagency, international, and commercial cooperation. NASA has been quite successful in externalizing some of the costs of the initiative through active participation in international and commercial ventures. The EOS budget through 2000 has been reduced by 60 percent since original approval by Congress in 1990. In a press conference statement on February 6, 1997, NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin remarked, "NASA is doing more with less. NASA has taken its cuts and still produced world class science." The budget breakdown for FY 1996 through the budget request for FY 1998 appears below:

Budget breakdown

Program element FY96 app. FY97 req. FY97 app. FY98 req.
EOS (inc. Landsat) 535.3 million 585.7 586.7 679.7
Technology Infusion
0.0 0.0 46.7* 65.5*
New Millennium Program
10.0* 10.0* 0.0 0.0
EOSDIS 241.2 261.1 254.6 244.7
Applied Research/Data
337.8 379.1 373.4 325.3
MTPE Science
248.2* 277.1* 295.4* 271.1*

89.6* 102.0* 78.0* 54.2*
Earth Probes (TOMS,
46.0 47.1 57.2 40.7
ESS Pathfinders
1.0* 20.0* 19.4* 29.4*
Launch Services 107.1 124.1 84.7 121.9
GLOBE 22.0 5.0 5.0 5.0
Total MTPE Budget 1289.4 1402.1 1361.6 1417.3

*Numbers in Plain type represent subdivisions of those preceding them in bold type

Prior to the August 1997 recess, both chambers of Congress provided for flat funding for the Mission to Planet Earth initiative in their respective VA/HUD appropriations bills, authorizing $1.4 billion for FY 1998.

For additional information, the following websites are especially helpful:
The Office of MTPE website
The EOS Project Science Office website
The U.S. Global Change Research Information Office website

History and Background for MTPE

Earth System Science: An Overview

In 1983, the Advisory Council of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) established an Earth System Science Committee whose task was to delineate a plan for the application of the newly defined, all-encompassing approach to earth science research, appropriately termed Earth System Science (ESS). In May of 1986, this committee published a report in which it defined the aspects and goals of the research approach, in addition to presenting a potential program of application. The following overview is based on that report.

The goal of ESS is "to obtain a scientific understanding of the entire Earth system on a global scale by describing how its component parts and their interactions have evolved, how they function, and how they may be expected to continue to evolve on all timescales. Fundamental to this approach is a view of the Earth system as a set of interacting processes operating on a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, rather than as a collection of individual components. In survey fashion, the program would first collect data describing Earth systems, attempt to understand that data, feed that data into global models simulating global changes, and finally apply the gained insight to the tasks of reconstructing previous Earth evolution and predicting future evolution on a planetary scale." Committee members saw the process of distinguishing those global changes induced by human activity from those arising from natural processes as the most significant challenge of an ESS approach.

After reading through the committee's suggestions for implementation of such lofty goals, it is not difficult to see how the concept of a Mission to Planet Earth initiative was born. The shaping strategy for the system's application as outlined in the plan is a close ancestor to the MTPE initiative which was to be introduced only a year later. The strategy as defined by the committee included the following two conclusions: 1) long-term, continuous global observations accomplished through both space and in situ collection would be necessary, and 2) an advanced information system to process and distribute the data from global observations would also be required for plan implementation.

The NASA committee saw real societal applications for the promised knowledge from such an approach. "Guided by the new knowledge, society may wish to consider modifications in the use of fossil fuels; political, social, and technical planning for the relocation of primary grain-production areas; controls on the disposal of chemical wastes; or redistribution of water in response to drought forecasts." Thus, some practical benefits of an Earth System Science approach might include global weather prediction, the identification of regions of potential volcanic and earthquake activity, and more efficient use of agricultural resources.

More specifically, the committee called for continuous space observation, specialized space research missions, basic research and in situ observations, and the development of an advanced information system and advanced instrumentation through the mid-1990's. In the mid-1990's, the Earth Observing System (EOS) program was to take over. The report also stressed the need for significant international involvement as a prerequisite for initiative success. In a timely research briefing released in 1985, the National Academy of Sciences also stressed the need for new observations of the Earth that are "global, synoptic, long-term," and "simultaneous."

These recommendations from the scientific community for a comprehensive and simultaneous Earth science research approach were followed by a government initiative with the same goals, the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program

When the U.S. Global Change Research Program was established as a Presidential Initiative in the FY 1990 budget, the U.S. government confirmed its support of the research needed to characterize and understand global environmental change and to provide answers to important questions about the Earth system, how it is changing, and the implications of global change for society and the natural ecosystems and managed resource systems on which society depends. Although the scientific community remains somewhat divided on the degree of global change that may be occurring, if any at all, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has been responsible for directing federal support for scientific research to address these uncertainties. The 1997 Executive Summary statement regarding the USGCRP identified the goals of the program as the following:

1) to observe and document changes in the Earth system
2) to understand what changes are occurring and why
3) to improve predictions of future global change
4) to analyze the environmental, socioeconomic, and health consequences of global change, and
5) to support state-of-the-science assessments of global environmental change issues.

The USGCRP initiative echoes the priorities of both NASA's Earth System Science approach and its broad application project, the Mission to Planet Earth (MTPE). "The USGCRP supports the advance of understanding of the Earth system through experiments that explore the working of physical, chemical, geological, solar, and biological processes, and through Earth system modeling to integrate and tie together the many processes into a unified representation of the atmosphere-ocean-land-ecological system." Indeed, the two initiatives are intimately related, the USGCRP largely serving as a broad governmental umbrella for the MTPE. The Mission to Planet Earth claims $1.2 billion of the USGCRP's $1.9 billion budget.

The USGCRP was established by President Reagan and included as a Presidential Initiative in the FY 1990 budget by President Bush. It was codified by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (Public Law 101-606; 104 Stat. 3096-3104). Presidents Bush and Clinton and Congress have supported the USGCRP as a high priority in the national scientific research agenda. The Subcommittee on Global Change Research (SGCR) of the National Science and Technology Council's (NSTC) Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR) provides overall direction and executive oversight of the USGCRP. A collective of agencies manages and coordinates federally supported scientific research on global change. Agencies are assigned to research initiatives conducive to their backgrounds and capabilities. For example, in light of the current topic, NASA leads efforts relating to satellite observations of the Earth as well as research to interpret and understand these observations.

The Global Change Research Act of 1990 defines global change as "changes in the global environment (including alterations in climate, land productivity, oceans or other water resources, atmospheric chemistry, and ecological systems) that may alter the capacity of the Earth to sustain life." The Act, established on November 16, 1990, is summarized as "an Act to require the establishment of a U.S. Global Change Research Program aimed at understanding and responding to global change, including the cumulative effects of human activities and natural processes on the environment, to promote discussions toward international protocols in global change research, and for other purposes." To read more about the Global Change Research Act of 1990, visit the U.S. Global Change Research Information Office website.

Overall, the USGCRP hopes to obtain information that can be utilized in prediction and help to shape the public policy response to environmental change findings. The USGCRP research results provide the base that underpins consideration of possible response strategies, but the USGCRP does not recommend policies on global change issues, nor does it include support for research and development of energy technologies or the development of mitigation strategies.

The National Research Council has been conducting a major program review of the USGCRP. An interim report released in September of 1995 offered some general opinions about the research initiative as well as some recommendations. Overall, the report stated that "the scientific and societal motivations of the program remain compelling, and the USGCRP should be actively pursued." The report went on to say that "a great deal of extremely high-quality science that is recognized worldwide for its excellence and leadership has resulted from the USGCRP." In an attempt to focus the initiative, the NRC defined "priority issues" in Earth system science that are of great scientific and practical importance. These included the following areas of concentration:

1) seasonal to interannual climate variability...development of our knowledge in this area adds to an ongoing global endeavor to develop and enhance prediction capabilities, and to apply experimental forecasts to real problems of economic planning and development in climate sensitive sectors such as agriculture and public health,
2) climate change over decades to centuries...this information will assist both planners and managers,
3) changes in ozone, UV radiation, and atmospheric chemistry...these findings will allow us to make policy choices that protect public health and preserve the protective qualities of the atmosphere,
4) changes in land cover and in terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

The program supports research projects to inventory the current land cover of the Earth and to document changes; to improve understanding of the dynamics of land-cover and land-use and how terrestrial ecosystems react to change; and to document and understand chemical, physical, and biological processes in the oceans and their relationship with the carbon cycle and marine life. In addition, the USGCRP supports a number of "essential ongoing integrative and cooperative efforts" including obtaining and monitoring global change (includes support for the EOS program); global change data, products, and information services; the framework of an Earth system science approach; and international cooperation.

The National Research Council interim report also included some recommendations for the USGCRP. Primarily, the NRC saw a need for enhanced collaboration and cooperation among the scientific community, the Congress, federal agencies, and the Executive Office of the President to ensure that all elements of the program are considered in the context of the integrated program as a whole. The NRC also recommended the implementation of a future framework for the MTPE that incorporates advanced instrumentation and vehicle technologies, such as small satellites and remotely piloted vehicles, as well as the streamlining and reconfiguration of EOSDIS.

In an appendix of the same interim report, the NRC specifically reviewed the USGCRP with attention to the MTPE/EOS initiatives. To view this section of the report, visit Appendix E on the web. The NRC reported that EOS' program structure and science have been significantly improved, and that current sensors and platforms are appropriate and efficient in that they reflect the current Earth system science priorities and give proper emphasis to the development of sensors for other important phenomena. In response to claims that the EOS program is too broad in focus, the NRC concluded that "the current range of scientific uncertainties makes EOS' broad range of measurements relevant particularly in that its sensors emphasize the validation, calibration, and continuity required for the detection of subtle climate signals." The NRC also remarked that convergence opportunities would offer the promise of reduced overlap, reduced cost, and improved science through NASA, NOAA, and DOD cooperation on weather and climate satellites. The report acknowledged the significant institutional barriers and technical issues that must be overcome for such convergence to become a reality and concluded that the possibilities were worth extensive study. As regards international cooperation, the NRC concluded that there could be significant benefits from being able to address reliability in the voluntary arrangements by entering into multi-year commitments on satellites, sensors, and global observing systems.

In addressing the overall benefits of the EOS program, the NRC commented that the EOS data will have significantly greater value for civil, commercial, and defense applications than the data from previous lower-resolution sensors.

With such a broad focus and considerable technology requirements, the budgetary requirements for the EOS are substantial. The temptation for funding cuts is great. However, the NRC report concluded that "significant reductions in annual or aggregate budgets or imposed constraints on technical options could result in elimination of key sensors or platforms, slippage of schedules, loss of continuity in data sets, or elimination of the mechanisms for promoting the innovation needed for downstream cost reductions and science improvements." With the program already stretched to its limits, the NRC recognized that further reductions and constraints could reduce its technical capabilities and delay or eliminate these advances.

Congressional Direction: 1987 - 1997

House Hearing on NASA's Long Range Goals; July 22, 1987

Following the Challenger disaster, all eyes were on NASA to put together a coherent statement of future goals and directions. A hearing before the 100th Congress on July 22, 1987 presented the opportunity for NASA to present potential future initiatives which might lead the organization in a fruitful direction. Dr. Sally K. Ride, an Assistant Administrator at NASA at the time, was the designated witness, and presented four initiative proposals, none of which had yet been formally adopted by NASA officials. The four initiatives presented included: the Mission to Planet Earth, solar system exploration, an outpost on the moon, and human exploration of Mars. Dr. Ride stressed that the purpose of the hearing was not to prioritize the initiatives, selecting some and abandoning others. Rather, the hearing was simply an opportunity to present a list of possibilities, prior to NASA's internal analysis of the options.

Ride characterized the challenge of the Mission to Planet Earth (MTPE) as the development of a fundamental understanding of the Earth system and of the consequences of changes to that system in order to eventually develop the capability to predict changes that might occur either naturally or as a result of human activity. As the initiative was envisioned at the time, NASA hoped to use their space-based capabilities to understand out home planet. Among measurements to be included in the MTPE were global cloud cover, vegetative cover, ice cover, rainfall, ocean levels, ocean chlorophyll, tectonic plate deformation, and the atmospheric concentrations of ozone, methane, and carbon dioxide. Ride grouped these latter atmospheric measurements as "very important to the public" in the face of increasing concern in the scientific community about large-scale global change. Members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee were receptive to the initiatives but showed concern over issues of funding. Namely, if NASA were planning to pursue all four initiatives simultaneously, the funding necessary would be astronomical (pun intended). Committee members also stressed that the proposed initiatives might benefit considerably by involving the private sector. Simply put, the initiatives might be realistic were the private sector responsible for footing the bill.

Ride further elaborated on the Mission to Planet Earth initiative in her final report to the NASA Administrator, James C. Fletcher, submitted in August, 1997. "Over the past two decades, the scientific community has concluded that Earth is in a process of global change, and scientists now believe that it is necessary to study the Earth as a synergistic system." Prior to the hearing, NASA had already developed their version of this research approach, Earth System Science.

The proposal for the MTPE initiative contained two main components:

1) to establish and maintain a global observational system in space, which would include experiments and free-flying platforms in polar, low inclination, and geostationary orbits, and which would perform integrated, long-term measurements, and
2) to use the data from these satellites along with in situ information and numerical modeling to document, understand, and eventually predict global change.

The program was to begin with a suite of nine orbiting platforms: four sun-synchronous polar platforms, and five geostationary platforms. Ride characterized the information management system of the initiative as an essential component although the specifics of the system were not yet available. Ride simply mentioned that "a versatile, state-of-the-art" system would be necessary to organize the amount of data amassed from such an initiative. Since one of the principal limitations of current science models is the lack of observational data, it was expected that the data gathered from the MTPE initiative would be used to generate models of Earth systems and processes. In the report, Ride also emphasized the need for international involvement and cooperation for the initiative to succeed. Her final recommendation for the initiative as delivered to Dr. Fletcher was the following: "Championing this initiative would establish the U.S. at the forefront of a world-recognized need to understand our changing planet."

Senate Hearing on NASA's Space Science Programs and the Mission to Planet Earth; April 24, 1991

At a Senate hearing held in 1991, Senator Al Gore (D-TN) explained his strategy for making budget decisions where science is concerned. After a beginning statement of support for the objectives of the Mission to Planet Earth, Gore went on to say that "it does no good to the Congress nor to the administration to collect data that is not timely or useful as decisions about the future of our planet are being debated." Rather than having the program accomplish data "overkill," Gore felt that the MTPE should accomplish "only what's needed to develop public policy." Thus, federally funded research should be geared to the social concerns of the day, and attempt to provide answers to the questions that policymakers have, not merely to what may be interesting to the research community at large. Research for the sake of research alone or that undertaken out of sheer curiosity was not a matter for public funding in the eyes of Gore. Rather, he suggested that private funding pick up the tab for non-policy-minded research.

At the same hearing, both Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) and Sen. Larry Pressler (R-SD) characterized the MTPE as an essential element of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Hollings went on to say that such a "coordinated program of data collection, storage, and distribution is expected to be an important tool to scientists working to understand our global environmental systems," and in turn, that research "will help policymakers take appropriate actions to help improve the Earth's environment." The Senators made certain that a policy focus was retained, and the limitations placed on pure scientific discovery acted to minimize both the goals and plans for the Mission to Planet Earth.

Senate Hearing on NASA's Earth Observing System (EOS); February, 26, 1992

Senator Gore was again a key player in this hearing which broadly addressed the Mission to Planet Earth and specifically addressed the Earth Observing System. Gore stated that the research plan has the potential to "positively affect the lives of more people than any other NASA initiative." In keeping with this tremendous potential, Gore claimed that there was "no higher priority within the entire science and technology budget." Gore retained his policy-minded science approach, however, stating that the data recovered will advance congressional efforts to develop policies and programs to address environmental change. He also addressed the Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS). At the time, the system was "expected to archive more than one thousand times the amount of text currently stored by the Library of Congress." Sen. Hollings echoed Gore's emphasis on the importance of a space-based, environmental monitoring system.

At the hearing, a NASA representative presented a restructured, lower-cost plan for EOS and for the MTPE in general. He began his testimony by restating the purpose of the Mission to Planet Earth as the determination of the extent, causes, and regional consequences of global climate change. In order to cut costs and meet with Congressional approval, NASA made two principal initiative changes:

1) Rather than going with the original plan of launching several instruments on two large platforms, the missions were broken down into more frequent launches involving smaller, less-costly equipment, and
2) Several programs were discarded.

Because of governmental pressures to retain only those components of the initiative which spoke directly to pressing public policy decisions, the programs focused primarily on tectonics and stratigraphy were scrapped in favor of an overall program with an increased emphasis on climate change. In his testimony, the representative outlined the components of Phase I of the initiative, that phase occurring before the EOS launches. First, sixteen free-flying satellites were to be launched. Also, three Spacelab series were to be launched on the Space Shuttle. The data generated by these space-based missions was to be complemented by continuous, routine observations from the NOAA and military weather satellites. Following the completion of Phase I, the EOS components of the program were to take over beginning in 1998, as a constellation of intermediate and small satellites was slated to replace the Phase I equipment. The testimony included the statement that the cost of the EOS program was expected to be approximately $11 billion through FY 2000.

House Science Committee Hearing on the Future of the Mission to Planet Earth and the U.S. Global Change Research Program; March 6, 1996

On March 6, 1996, the House Science Committee held a hearing on the future of NASA's MTPE and the USGCRP. In the past, Committee Chairman Robert Walker (R-PA) and Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) had been critical of the MTPE program. Chairman Walker stated that he wanted to "set the record straight" about his perceived opposition to Mission To Planet Earth and its primary component, the Earth Observing System. He went on to say that he is not opposed to a research program that is affordable and viable. Walker claimed that the current funding plan for MTPE was unrealistic and will result in a "funding gap" for NASA in the outyears. He questioned how NASA can afford to maintain the MTPE program at projected funding levels without making severe cuts in other science programs, as NASA funding is scheduled to decline sharply over the next few years. Committee members and some witnesses suggested several alternatives for reducing MTPE costs, including use of Cold War space technology and access to data collected by the Department of Defense. Dr. Edward Frieman, Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and chair of an NRC panel charged with reviewing the USGCRP and the MTPE/EOS program, stated that the USGCRP and MTPE are scientifically sound and necessary, and that further implementation of new technologies and partnering could lower future costs.

Witnesses on the second panel, which included the head of the USGCRP and other scientists, all agreed that MTPE and the EOS Satellite System were scientifically necessary for proper and accurate collection of data, despite their disagreements over the level or scope of global change.

House Science Space Subcommittee Hearing on the FY98 NASA Authorization: MTPE; March 19, 1997

This hearing, held on March 19, 1997, was enlivened by a "surprise" witness. Dr. Ed Hudgins of the Cato Institute urged abolishment of the MTPE program, claiming that it was politically driven, "a bogus issue based on bad science," and an excuse for NASA to keep asking for money. The hearing was the first for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher as Chairman of the Space Subcommittee. Rohrabacher, who in the past has called the theory of global warming "at worst...liberal claptrap," declared that he supported scientific research to study how the planet works," but questioned why the program was requesting a 4% increase over its FY 1997 budget of $1.36 billion at a time when the total NASA budget is declining.

The first witness, Mr. William F. Townsend, explained the three components of MTPE--a series of Earth-observing satellites, an advanced data system, and teams of scientists who translate the data into new and useful understanding of fundamental science questions. Townsend is the Acting Associate Administrator for the Office of Mission to Planet Earth, NASA. He noted that the program has already accomplished advances in weather prediction, especially in the Southern hemisphere, and will continue to provide scientists with better tools for managing agriculture and forests, as well as assisting fishermen and local planners. Townsend also remarked on the changes in the program that have occurred since its inception, in large part due to suggestions of Congress. For example, consultation with the National Academy of Sciences among other actions helped to reduce the costs of MTPE through 2000 by over 60%. Also, the original four research themes were expanded to include a fifth, natural hazards research and application.

Dr. Stamatios Krimigis, Head of the Space Department and Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, explained the application of the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) to MTPE. MSX was launched in April 1996 and has "returned a wealth of observations that are vital to the design and implementation of a National Missile Defense Program to our body of knowledge of the Earth and the Universe." MSX's key objective is to collect background data, such as information about stars, atmosphere, land, and oceans. MSX's episodic data complements NASA missions, which typically collect continuous data. MSX addresses "high-value focused scientific issues," and has been lauded for its hyperspectral imaging capability.

Dr. Steven Wofsy, Harvard University Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Chair of the Earth Systems Science Application Advisory Committee, presented the findings of his committee, which provides advice to the Administrator of NASA and Office of MTPE. The committee found that "the programs that make up the MTPE are more important than ever as a principal component of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) and as a critical, highly visible part of NASA's mission." The committee recommends a greater number of smaller space missions with focused objectives, carried out over a shorter time span. Dr. Wofsy also expressed concern that recent funding decreases greatly harm and limit the program.

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

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

For more information on this hearing, visit the Hearing Summary on the AGI GAP website.


NASA's Mission to Planet Earth program will benefit all of Earth science, though some parts more than others. The mapping and land surface movement observation initiatives will directly benefit the geoscience field. Also, the entire scientific community will benefit from the development of more accurate models to represent ocean-land-atmosphere interaction. In addition, the development of EOSDIS has applicability in all areas of science in addition to industry and the private sector. Data storage and disbursement systems are becoming more valuable as we continue to amass information and require consultation and background to advance our own research initiatives. Still, the focus of MTPE remains the acquisition of data directly related to policy decisions concerning human-induced global change.

Web Resources
The Office of Mission to Planet Earth
The EOS Project Science Office
The U.S. Global Change Research Information Office
The Space Studies Board of the National Research Council


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

Contributed by Jenna Minicucci, AGI Government Affairs Intern

Created July 7, 1997; Last updated July 31, 1997

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