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.


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 2007 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 missions6) 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’s 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. However, even as NASA strives to “do more with less,” it is confronted with challenges, including limited access to affordable medium-class launch vehicles—the mainstay of Earth observation programs—and significant growth in the cost to develop instruments and spacecraft, a consequence, in part, of how NASA manages its space missions. These challenges (discussed further in Chapter 3) have hindered implementation of the envisioned balanced Earth system science program. With respect to cost growth, the committee found that decadal survey missions have thus far not been managed with sufficient consideration of the scope and cost outlined in the 2007 decadal survey in either an absolute or a relative sense. Chapter 4 offers recommendations to establish and manage mission costs.

6NASA, “Responding to the Challenge of Climate and Environmental Change: NASA’s Plan for a Climate-Centric Architecture for Earth Observations and Applications from Space,” June 2010. Available at

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement