for the anticipated remaining lifetime of in-orbit missions and counting new missions only if they have been formally approved in enacted agency budgets, 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 3.2; however, this plan, which has not been fully funded, also projects a precipitous decline in observing capabilities.
The mission and instrument trends illustrated in Figure 3.2 warn of a coming crisis in Earth observations from space, in which our ability to observe and understand the Earth system will decline just as Earth observations are critically needed to underpin important decisions facing our nation and the world. Advances in weather forecast accuracy may slow or even reverse, and gaps in time series of climate and other critical Earth observations are almost certain to occur.4 When these long-running data streams fall silent, users requiring these observations will go unsupported, and progress toward understanding the Earth system and how it supports life may stagnate. The committee recognizes that the number of missions and instruments in orbit is only one indicator of program health, given that some of the newer instruments measure multiple geophysical parameters. Yet even with the very capable instruments in NASA’s and NOAA’s current pipelines, the overall loss of capability will be felt by the entire Earth science community, and it will have a stark impact on certain specific disciplines.5 While opportunities for international collaboration may help to partially mitigate this loss in capability (see in Chapter 4 the section “International Partnerships”), reliance on such partnerships also carries risks. Moreover, foreign partners are not immune to the challenges currently faced by the U.S. Earth science program, as evidenced by the European Space Agency’s threat to not launch its Sentinel satellites unless it receives the funding to keep them operational beyond 2014.6
The committee is concerned that overruns in other NASA science divisions might begin to further impact the already stressed NASA Earth science budget. Just as the research and analysis program funds are fenced off from other aspects of the NASA Earth science budget to prevent Earth science mission overruns from threatening the overall health of the program, so also the committee hopes that NASA’s Earth science program can be protected from overruns by non-Earth science missions. The committee was encouraged to learn that NASA will not cover overruns in other divisions of the agency with money from the Earth Science Division budget in FY2012.7
Finding: Funding for NASA’s Earth science program has not been restored to the $2 billion per year (in FY2006 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.
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.
4See, for example, Office of the Inspector General, Audit of the Joint Polar Satellite System: Challenges Must Be Met to Minimize Gaps in Polar Environmental Satellite Data, Final Report No. OIG-11-034-A, September 30, 2011, available at http://www.oig.doc.gov/Pages/Audit-of-the-Joint-Polar-Satellite-System.aspx.
5There is as yet no plan to replace the capabilities of the Aura satellite, for example, which has served as a primary data source for the atmospheric chemistry community. Issues of data continuity and the lack of a comprehensive plan for stewardship of such sustained observations are discussed in Chapter 4.
6P.B. de Selding, ESA’s Dordain restates Sentinel launch cancellation threat, Space News, January 12, 2012, available at http://www.spacenews.com/earth_observation/120112-dordain-cancel-sentinel.html.
7D. Leone, NASA’s science, cross-agency budgets take a hit to pay for Webb, Space News, September 22, 2011, available at http://www.spacenews.com/civil/110922-science-cross-agency-budgets-take-hit.html.