Exploration, understanding, and prediction of Earth’s environment, especially its weather and climate, have been a dream of humankind for ages. Until the 20th century, this dream was largely unrealized. In the 20th century, however, and especially in the second half, progress in both understanding and prediction has been rapid. This progress has been made possible by discoveries based on observations, theory, and models as well as on technologies, including in situ and remote sensing observations, computers, and other information technologies such as communications systems. In a society that is more dependent on weather and climate than ever before, the increasing ability to observe and predict the atmosphere, oceans, and related elements of the Earth system has shown significant value in protecting life and property and in allowing society to mitigate the effects of, adapt to, and take advantage of the variability and extremes in weather and climate.
Satellite observations provide a unique vantage point from which to study the Earth system. Providing a vast range of observations—from measurements of atmospheric and oceanic circulation, to observations of ocean and land productivity, to measurements of upper-atmospheric temperatures, to space weather—satellites are sentinels of the global system. Moreover, they observe rapid changes, such as severe storms, floods, and even harmful phytoplankton blooms in the coastal ocean.
Because of the importance of Earth’s environment to society, the United States spends large amounts of resources on research into the Earth system and on operational prediction of the environment, particularly the prediction of weather and climate. This investment has paid great dividends, as general forecasts and warnings
of severe weather have improved steadily over the years. Yet there is a realization that the practical application of research achievements to the improvement of operations (a complex process loosely called transitioning research results into operations) is often less efficient and slower than it could be, resulting in a loss of return on the research investment (NRC, 2000a; GAO, 2002; Hertzfeld and Williamson, 2002). For example, it took more than 25 years after the launch of the first infrared (IR) sounding sensor to successfully use the data operationally (see Appendix B, “Case Studies of Transitions from Research to Operations”). The reasons are as complex as the transitioning process itself, and a number of other studies have addressed this and related issues (see Chapter 2, “The Research-to-Operations Context”).
This report, building on previous studies, looks at the transitioning process in the context of the current fiscal and technological environment and suggests ways to improve that process. It focuses on weather and climate because of the rich history of transitioning atmospheric research into weather forecasts and warnings, the great impact of weather and climate on society, and the large amount of resources invested in weather and climate research and operations. In response to the needs of the study’s sponsors, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the report focuses on the transition of NASA satellite research to NOAA operations. However, the lessons learned and the recommendations made are likely to be applicable to a wide range of environmental issues as well as to the mission and operational needs of other government agencies and the private sector.
The Committee on NASA-NOAA Transition from Research to Operations recognizes that an important part of NASA’s mission is to carry out fundamental research on Earth and the universe—research for which there are no immediate or known applications. However, the emphasis of this report is on the many NASA missions that have both a fundamental research component and the potential for applications to benefit society and on ways in which the research results from these missions can be more effectively transitioned into operations.
Chapter 2 sets the research-to-operations context by reviewing previous studies related to the charge of this committee, the research-to-operations process in general, and the missions and roles of NASA, NOAA, and the Department of Defense (DOD). Many of the recommendations from the related studies (see Appendix A) are directly relevant and appropriate for this study, and they should be reviewed, considered, and responded to by policy makers.
Subsequent chapters consider the increasing impact of weather and climate on society, provide examples of the progress in understanding and predicting weather and climate over the past several decades, and describe the increasing applications and users of weather and climate information. Chapter 3 presents a vision for the next 25 years—an Earth Information System (EIS)—in which quantitative, geo-
referenced digital information about the Earth system (atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere) is available to a myriad of users for the benefit of society. Supporting the vision of an Earth Information System are many exciting new opportunities in space-based remote sensing (Chapter 4). A summary of these opportunities is followed by a discussion of past and present approaches, or transition pathways, from research to operations (Chapter 5). Case studies of successful and unsuccessful transitions from research to operations (Appendix B) provide empirical evidence of the problems and, more importantly, the best practices, associated with the transitioning process. The report concludes with a proposal for a mechanism for achieving more effective transitions (Chapter 6) and a summary of the committee’s findings and recommendations (Chapter 7). Information about U.S. missions, biographical information on the committee members, and a list of acronyms are included as Appendixes C, D, and E, respectively.
Advances in the ability to observe Earth from space and to assimilate these observations into high-resolution, coupled Earth system models form the scientific and technological basis for the vision of an Earth Information System—a complete, geo-referenced quantitative description of the Earth system that supports a variety of applications and users. A robust and flexible mechanism for transitioning research and technological advances quickly into operations is necessary to achieve the vision in a timely fashion and to maximize the return on research investment.