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Grave Concern About Earth Observing Satellites at Science Committee Hearing

“Flying blind” was but one of the terms that House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) used at a February Congressional hearing 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, Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond.

“The United States’ extraordinary foundation of global observations is at great risk,” the NRC report declared. “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.”

One of the major problems highlighted at the hearing was funding. Study co-chair Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, 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” is that the US 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.

Also on hand at the hearing was Anthes’ co-chair, Berrien Moore III, director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire.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.”

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 full text can be accessed at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11820.html.

Courtesy of FYI, the American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News (http://aip.org/fyi)