prior to the decadal survey—the Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM), Aquarius, and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP)3—have since been successfully launched and promise significant benefits to research and applications. The potential for the science community to make use of space-based data for research and applications has never been greater.

Finding: NASA responded favorably and aggressively to the 2007 decadal survey, embracing its overall recommendations for Earth observations, missions, technology investments, and priorities for the underlying science. As a consequence, the science and applications communities have made significant progress over the past 5 years.

However, the Committee on Assessment of NASA’s Earth Science Program found that, for several reasons, the survey vision is being realized at a far slower pace than was recommended. Although NASA accepted and began implementing the survey’s recommendations, the required budget assumed by the survey was not achieved, greatly slowing implementation of the recommended program. Launch failures, delays, changes in scope, and growth in cost estimates have further hampered the program. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has significantly reduced the scope of the nation’s future operational environmental satellite series, omitting observational capabilities assumed by the decadal survey to be part of NOAA’s future capability and failing to implement the three new missions recommended for NOAA implementation by the survey (the Operational GPS Radio Occultation Mission, the Extended Ocean Vector Winds Mission, and the NOAA portion of CLARREO).

Thus, despite recent and notable successes, such as the launches of OSTM, Aquarius, and Suomi NPP, the nation’s Earth observing capability from space is beginning to wane as older missions fail and are not replaced with sufficient cadence to prevent an overall net decline. Using agency estimates for the anticipated remaining lifetime of in-orbit missions and counting new missions formally approved in their enacted budgets, the committee found that the resulting number of NASA and NOAA Earth observing instruments in space by 2020 could be as little as 25 percent of the current number (Figure S.1).4 This precipitous decline in the quantity of Earth science and applications observations from space undertaken by the United States reinforces the conclusion in the 2007 decadal survey and its predecessor, the 2005 interim report, which declared that the U.S. system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse.5 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.

3On January 24, 2012, NASA’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project, launched on October 28, 2011, was renamed the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership in honor of the late Verner E. Suomi, a renowned meteorologist from the University of Wisconsin considered by many to be “the father of satellite meteorology.” See

4Figure S.1 is an updated version of a similar chart produced by the 2007 decadal survey. Using agency estimates for the anticipated remaining lifetime of in-orbit missions and counting new missions only if they have been formally approved in enacted agency budgets, Figure S.1 indicates that the number of missions could decline from 23 in 2012 to only 6 in 2020, and the number of NASA and NOAA Earth-observing instruments in space could decline from a peak of about 110 in 2011 to approximately 20 in 2020. A more optimistic scenario based on the Climate-Centric Architecture put forth to leverage anticipated augmented funding to support administration priorities is also shown in Figure S.1; however, this plan, which has not been fully funded, also projects a precipitous decline in observing capabilities.

5National Research Council, Earth Science and Applications from Space: Urgent Needs and Opportunities to Serve the Nation, 2005.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement