On June 13, Conrad Burns (R-MT), chair of the Senate Commerce
Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, held a supportive
hearing on NASA's Mission to Planet Earth. In contrast to recent
criticisms of the program by House Science Committee Chair Robert
Walker (R-PA), Burns' hearing showcased witnesses who praised the
program and supported it as currently planned. Burns stated that
the program has the potential to "easily pay for itself."
The witnesses gave examples of how data from NASA's Mission to
Planet Earth programs, including EOS, Landsat, and TOPEX/Poseidon,
can be used by regional and local governments, private industries,
and other federal agencies. Paul Smith, director of atmospheric
sciences at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, noted
that the major concerns affecting the economy of the upper Missouri
River Basin were weather, water, and agriculture. He explained how
the region made use of NASA remote sensing data to improve
understanding of those processes and provide a better base for
policy decisions. Richard Bowers, the city manager for Scottsdale,
Arizona, reported that his city was working with NASA to
incorporate satellite data into its Geographic Information System.
He stated that it had enormous potential to save the city millions
of dollars each year in planning, zoning, and mapping activities.
Accurate data, he said, is "critical to making wise stewardship
decisions." Tommy Thompson, resource manager for Louisiana-Pacific
Corporation, explained how the timber industry uses satellite
imagery of a region to assess resources and needs, and develop
long-term management plans.
In the House, Walker has proposed reduced funding for EOS, and
particularly its Data and Information System (EOSDIS). On June 12,
he announced a GAO report critical of the EOS budget, which
estimated its total cost at about $33 billion. In the accompanying
press release, Walker stated, "It is clear that the original price
of this program must be scaled down. We have to make the decisions
today that will lead to long-term savings.... The ground-based
portion of the program must also be rescoped.... A smaller-scale
data information system would fulfill the requirements of the
Burns gave his witnesses the opportunity to refute these
criticisms. NASA's Associate Administrator for Mission to Planet
Earth, Charles Kennel, responded that GAO did not take into account
ongoing NASA efforts, such as the New Millennium program, to
develop and incorporate new technologies that would reduce future
costs. Al Watkins, director of the U.S. Geological Survey's
National Mapping Division, stressed the importance of making the
data easily accessible to a large community of users. "History
shows," he said, "that poorly-implemented ground systems can have
devastating effects on the quality of scientific research."
Noting that "the taxpayers are really getting more for their money"
from the program than "what they read in the papers," Burns said
that he and the full Senate commerce committee chair, Larry
Pressler (R-SD), were strong supporters of Mission to Planet Earth.
Although unable to attend the hearing, Pressler has been quoted in
"Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report" as suggesting that funding
for the space station might perhaps be better spent on Mission to
Planet Earth. However, the Senate does not often develop
authorization bills, and Burns gave no indication that he was
drafting one this year.