Understanding the complex, changing planet on which we live, how it supports life, and how human activities affect its ability to do so in the future is one of the greatest intellectual challenges facing humanity. It is also one of the most important challenges for society as it seeks to achieve prosperity, health, and sustainability.
These declarations, first made in the interim report of the Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Community Assessment and Strategy for the Future (NRC, 2005, p. 1), are the foundation of the committee’s vision of a decadal program of Earth science research and applications in support of society—a vision that includes advances in fundamental understanding of Earth and increased application of this understanding to serve the nation and the people of the world. The declarations call for a renewal of the national commitment to a program of Earth observations from space in which attention to securing practical benefits for humankind plays an equal role with the quest to acquire new knowledge about Earth.
The interim report described how satellite observations have been critical to scientific efforts to understand Earth as a system of connected components, including the land, oceans, atmosphere, biosphere, and solid Earth. It also gave examples of how these observations have served the nation, helping to save lives and protect property, strengthening national security, and contributing to the growth of the economy1 through the provision of timely environmental information. However, the interim report also identified a substantial risk to the continued availability of these observations, warning that the nation’s system of environmental satellites was “at risk of collapse” (p. 2). Since the publication of the interim report, budgetary constraints and programmatic difficulties at NASA and NOAA have greatly exacerbated this risk (see the Preface). At a time of unprecedented need, the nation’s Earth observation satellite programs, once the envy of the world, are in disarray.