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A National Research Council expert committee of the National Academy of Sciences issued a dire warming of the precipitous decline in our earth observing capability which could degrade weather forecasts, emergency response and our ability to monitor and respond to environmental problems and climate change. The projected decline from 26 satellites in 2011 to 6 satellites in 2020 threatens U.S. jobs, science and engineering capabilities and a critical sector of our industrial base.Openbook or PDF of report here. Massive budget cuts to NASA made by the Republican congress and Bush administration were never restored, leaving NASA's earth science programs in shambles. NASA now lacks a reliable, affordable medium-class launch vehicle for putting satellites in earth orbit.

The committee found that the number of NASA and NOAA Earth observing instruments in space is likely to decline to as little as 25 percent of the current number by 2020 (Figure S.1). This precipitous decline in the quantity of Earth science and applications observations from space undertaken by the United States reinforces the conclusion in the decadal survey and its predecessor, the 2005 interim report (NRC, 2005), which declared that the U.S. system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse. The committee found that a rapid decline in capability is now beginning and that the needs for both investment and careful stewardship of the U.S. Earth observations enterprise are more certain and more urgent now than they were 5 years ago.

Finding: The nation’s Earth observing system is beginning a rapid decline in capability as long running missions end and key new missions are delayed, lost, or canceled.

The projected loss of observing capability could have significant adverse consequences for science and society. The loss of observations of key Earth system components and processes will weaken the ability to understand and forecast changes arising from interactions and feedbacks within the Earth system and limit the data and information available to users and decision makers. Consequences are likely to include slowing or even reversal of the steady gains in weather forecast accuracy over many years and degradation of the ability to assess and respond to natural hazards and to measure and understand changes in Earth’s climate and life support systems. The decrease in capability by 2020 will also have far-reaching consequences for the vigor and breadth of the nation’s space-observing industrial and academic base, endangering the pipeline of Earth science and aerospace engineering students and the health of the future workforce.

NASA has been losing capabilities for the past decade as the Republican war on science decimated budgets, morale and the ability to plan for the future. When Democrats had the opportunity to restore budgets and capabilities at NASA in 2009 and 2010, they didn't. Now our earth observation capabilities are beginning to decline rapidly.
Although there have been a number of successes, NASA’s Earth science program has suffered multiple setbacks and other external pressures that are, in many cases, beyond the control of program management. Foremost among these is a budget profile that is not sufficient to execute the decadal survey’s recommended program. In addition, some of the survey-recommended missions have proved more challenging than anticipated, and others envisioned synergies that are not readily achieved via the
suggested implementation. The ESD budget has been further strained as a result of mandates from Congress (e.g., the addition of the approximately $150 million TIRS [Thermal Infrared Sensor] to the Landsat Data Continuity Mission) and the interjection of administration priorities (e.g., the Climate Continuity missions5) without the commensurate required funding.

Finding: Funding for NASA’s Earth science program has not been restored to the $2 billion per year (in fiscal year [FY] 2006 dollars) level needed to execute the 2007 decadal survey’s recommended program. Congress’ failure to restore the Earth science budget to a $2 billion level is a principal reason for NASA’s inability to realize the mission launch cadence recommended by the survey.

The committee concluded that in the near term budgets for NASA’s Earth science program will remain incommensurate with programmatic needs.

NASA has lost the capability to put small to medium sized satellites into orbit reliably at an affordable price. The old reliable medium sized launch vehicle has been retired and the Taurus launch vehicle failed the last 2 launches. We need reliable and affordable access to space.

The cost of executing survey-recommended missions has increased, in part due to the lack of availability of a medium-class launch vehicle. To control costs and to optimize the use of scarce fiscal resources, the 2007 decadal survey recommended mostly small- and medium-class missions that could utilize relatively low-cost small- or medium-class launch vehicles (e.g., Pegasus, Taurus, and Delta II).

However, the Taurus launch vehicle has failed in its past two launches, and the Delta II is being phased out as the commercial sector focuses on heavier-lift launch vehicles, which are substantially more expensive to procure. Use of such heavy-lift launch vehicles is not generally cost-effective for Earth science missions; indeed, the excess capability and high cost of these vehicles encourage designers to grow their payloads to better match the launcher’s capabilities, which encourages growth in scope and cost. The lack of a reliable and low-cost medium-capability launch vehicle thus directly threatens programmatic robustness. The committee offers the following finding and recommendation concerning the cost and availability of medium-class launch vehicles (see the “Access to Space” section in Chapter 3):

Finding: Lack of reliable, affordable, and predictable access to space has become a key impediment to implementing NASA’s Earth science program. Furthermore, the lack of a medium-class launch vehicle threatens programmatic robustness.

Recommendation: NASA should seek to ensure the availability of a highly reliable,
affordable medium-class launch capability.

Originally posted to SciTech on Fri May 04, 2012 at 06:15 AM PDT.

Also republished by Headwaters.

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