Grave Concern About Earth Observing Satellites at Science Committee Hearing

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Publication date: 
27 February 2007

“Flying blind” is but one of the terms that House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) used at a hearing earlier this month to describe the nation’s rapidly deteriorating system of Earth observing satellites. Gordon’s assessment was shared by committee members on both sides of the aisle during this review of a National Research Council report entitled, “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond.”

“As documented in this report, the United States’ extraordinary foundation of global observations is at great risk. Between 2006 and the end of the decade, the number of operating missions will decrease dramatically and the number of operating sensors and instruments on NASA spacecraft, most of which are well past their nominal lifetimes, will decrease by some 40 percent,” declared this report. First conceived in 2004, the report was conducted at the request of the NASA Office of Earth Science, NOAA National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, and the USGS Geography Division. The first decadal survey undertaken by the Earth Science community, the 400-page report was produced by the 80-member “Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Community Assessment and Strategy for the Future,” working under the Space Studies Board. The report can be accessed at

Testifying at the February 13 committee hearing were the study’s co-chairs: Richard Anthes, President of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and Berrien Moore III, Director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire. Joining them at the witness table was former Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer, now with the Environmental Systems Research Institute, who was testifying as a representative of the Alliance for Earth Observations.

“I don’t think the National Academies could be any clearer,” said Gordon, sentiments shared by Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX) who added, “this is a problem that needs to be addressed.”

One of the major problems highlighted at the hearing was funding. Anthes testified that “while societal applications have grown ever-more dependent upon our Earth observing fleet, the NASA Earth science budget has declined some 30% in constant-year dollars since 2000. This disparity between growing societal needs and diminished resources must be corrected.” The report’s “overarching recommendation,” Anthes said: “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.”

Moore told the committee that “at a time of unprecedented need, the nation’s Earth observation satellite programs, once the envy of the world, are in disarray.” After describing the difficult choices that the NRC committee made in narrowing more than 100 suggested future mission concepts into a far more limited set of recommended missions for the next decade, Moore explained that “the recommended NASA program can be accomplished by restoring the Earth science budget in real terms to the levels of the 1990s.” Moore described NASA’s out-year Earth science budgets as fundamentally flawed and “totally inadequate to accomplish the decadal survey’s recommendations.” The NOAA budget outlook is mixed, Moore said, and assessing it over the long term is difficult because it “is far from transparent.”

Another major problem was outlined by Governor Geringer: “Yes, funding is important but the essential missing element is leadership.” “Earth observation is not a priority mission for any designated agency at the cabinet level. Not within NASA, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Interior nor any other Federal agency.” Geringer supports the report’s recommendations that the Office of Science and Technology Policy “develop and implement a plan for achieving and sustaining global Earth observations. Then a single point of contact or program office at the Cabinet level should be established to assure complementary rather than duplicative or fragmented effort for all operational aspects of Earth observation and analysis.”

Committee members were obviously troubled by what they had heard, and realized the consequences of a greatly diminished U.S. Earth observation scientific and technical capability on making sound policy judgements and competitiveness. Chairman Gordon’s remark seemed to summarize well his committee’s position: “It’s not going to be easy to find the necessary money in the current fiscal environment, but given the consequences of inaction, we must try.”