Democrats Decry Budget Cuts, Lack of Clear Direction in NASA’s Earth Science Program
(Washington, DC) While the House Committee on Science heard a relatively upbeat assessment from NASA Assistant Administrator Alphonso Diaz on the state of the agency’s Earth Science programs today, the co-chair of the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences - and other noted researchers - presented a far more sobering picture.
"The bottom line appears to be that NASA’s Earth Science program faces the prospect of being marginalized in the coming years as the agency puts its focus on the President’s exploration initiative," remarked Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN).
A just-released report by the National Research Council (NRC) committee reviewing NASA’s Earth Science program echoed Rep. Gordon’s view. "This change in priorities jeopardizes NASA’s ability to fulfill its obligations in other presidential initiatives, such as the Climate Change Research Initiative and the subsequent Climate Change Science Program. It also calls into question future U.S. leadership in the Global Earth Observing System of Systems, an international effort initiated by the current Administration," stated the NRC panel.
Science Committee Democrats made clear their concern that NASA seems to be lacking a long-term commitment to Earth Science programs - one of the agency’s core missions. No clear strategy for future programs or maintenance of current programs, combined with a series of downward revisions to NASA’s funding plan for Earth Science over the last several years, leaves key programs facing uncertain futures.
"Despite the importance of Earth science and applications research, all is not well with NASA’s Earth Science program," added Space Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO). "There may well be good budgetary reasons to consider moving the Landsat sensor onto NPOESS, for instance, but I am concerned that neither the technical impacts of such a move – nor its likely cost impacts – are well understood at this point." NPOESS is a joint NOAA-DOD weather satellite currently under development.
The NRC report summed up the views of all of the witnesses with respect to the importance of Earth Science research to the nation: "Earth information is essential to ensuring prosperity and security of society as a whole… much of the world population lives in areas that are prone to natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis… despite many successes in applying Earth science information to improve lives, security, and economy, we have the ability to do much more."
Last month, the Space Subcommittee heard about the shaky state of NASA aeronautics programs from a range of expert witnesses. A month before that, NASA Acting Administrator Dr. Fred Gregory told Committee Members that some 2,000 existing jobs at NASA Centers would be eliminated by the fall of next year.
"Today, we hear more bad news from more expert witnesses," concluded Rep. Gordon. "The very scientists we trust for advice and information are telling us that ‘the nation’s Earth observation program is at risk,’ yet the Administration continues on a path of diminishing this and other important NASA missions," added Rep. Gordon. "I’m especially troubled by the fact that NASA seems willing to transfer its vital programs to NOAA without first ensuring NOAA will have the funds to pick them up."