Figure 1 CloudSat will have Cloud Profiling Radar using microwave energy to observe cloud particles and determine the mass of water and ice within clouds. The mission will collect information about the vertical structure of clouds that will help answer key questions about how they form, evolve and affect our weather, climate and water supply. Artist’s concept of CloudSat, credit: NASA/JPL.

NASA's Earth Science Program

Learning from Past Events to Project the Future

Edward Goldstein, PhD
American University,
The Catholic University of America
and Georgetown University
Writer/Editor, NASA
Washington, D.C.

What are the future prospects for NASA's Earth science program, an activity that has long struggled for resources and management attention within the space agency? Will the program wither on the vine, suffering from a drought of funding and a lack of clear vision for the follow-on to the existing 14-satellite Earth Observing System (EOS)? Or will the program be reinvigorated, helped by the same political conditions that existed when NASA's Mission to Planet Earth was proposed by President Bush's father as a major national research initiative in the 1989-1991 time frame?

A case for the latter scenario can be found in a reading of ideas presented by noted political scientist John Kingdon about how issues get placed on the policy agenda. Specifically, in Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (2nd edition 1995), Kingdon contends that the time for an issue or policy proposal to receive serious political attention occurs when a condition is defined as a problem demanding governmental attention, when acceptable policy alternatives are specified and when the political environment is ripe for action.

Figure 2 The intense blue and green colors of the ocean water in this image show the North Atlantic Bloom, made by millions of surface-dwelling ocean plants, phytoplankton, which are the base of the marine food chain. The land mass to the middle right of the image is Iceland, and the land mass with ice in the upper left corner is Greenland. NASA image created by Jesse Allen, using data obtained from the MODIS data archives. MODIS image taken on NASA’s Aqua satellite on July 15, 2007.

NASA's Mission to Planet Earth was formally proposed following the eventful year of 1988, in which various indicators (e.g., rising global temperature readings, warming ocean temperatures, major hurricanes, droughts, and the Yellowstone wildfires) gave credence to the idea that Earth's changing climate could be defined as a public policy problem demanding the attention of political leaders. NASAhad acknowledged expertise in developing new technologies for passive and active remote sensing from space. That December, Time magazine eschewed the naming of a person in its traditional year-ender, and decided to designate endangered Earth as "Planet of the Year."

Led by NASA's Earth science director Shelby Tilford and a NASA advisory committee panel headed by former National Center for Atmospheric Research director Francis Bretherton, extensive ongoing planning gave government officials confidence that a major NASA Earth science program could be mounted. For political leaders on both sides of the political fence, it seemed to make sense to invest in an increased NASA Earth science effort, in the context of a multi-agency U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), to help inform decision making on global climate change.

In 1989, the incoming George H. W. Bush administration formally proposed NASA's Mission to Planet Earth. As "Bush 41" put it at the time, "Let us remember as we chase our dreams into the stars that our first responsibility is to our Earth, to our children, to ourselves. Yes, let us dream, and let us pursue those dreams, but let us also preserve the fragile world we inhabit." Without much debate, the Democratic-led Congress lent its stamp of approval to the proposal. The only constraints for the program—familiar ones today—were tight budgets. The 1990 White House-Congressional deal to limit domestic discretionary spending forced NASA to abandon plans for an $18 billion ten-year program built around two large polar orbiting platforms. Within new budget guidelines of $7.25 billion for the ten-year program, the agency decided to rely on satellites flying in close formation, which would still allow for most of the EOS science objectives to be met.

During the George W. Bush administration, the EOS is largely up and running with 14 satellites in orbit, but the future of the Earth science program is very much in doubt.

Figure 3 Tropical Cyclone 10s (Dina), northeast of Mauritius and Reunion Islands to the southeast of Madagascar, as seen from the Sea-viewing Wide-Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS) onboard the OrbView-2 satellite. Visualization date: Jan. 24, 2002. Courtesy of the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and GeoEye.

Before and after the 2004 presidential decision to reorient NASA’s mission toward the goal of developing an outpost on the moon and eventually sending astronaut pioneers to Mars, there was extensive discussion within the Bush administration about possibly moving NASA’s Earth science programs to NOAA. The Earth science program at the time was being impacted by funding constraints to NASA as a whole that were resulting in delays to or the elimination of future missions, and in reduced funding for research and analysis of data by scientists.

Despite these cloudy signals, the time might once again be ripe for the political system to provide additional attention and resources to NASA's Earth science program. Contributing to this view are evidence of increased public concern about the issue of global climate change after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the development of a priority-setting National Research Council Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space, and changes in the makeup of the Congress following the 2006 elections.

Where NASA's Earth science program specifically fits into Kingdon's model is the perceived need—mostly expressed in public policy circles—to maintain continuity of climate measurements and to get a better handle on the question of whether our planet is facing a global warming "tipping point" that could lead to dramatic increases in tropical storm intensity, melting of polar ice caps, sea level rise, and other fund-amental changes. No less a figure than British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking told a group of Chinese students in June 2006 that he was "very worried about global warming" and afraid that Earth "might end up like Venus, at 250 degrees centigrade and raining sulfuric acid."[1]

The public mood also fits into this picture. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted May 4-6, 2007, found that 74 percent of respondents agreed that global warming is a "proven fact," with 54 percent saying the warming is "mostly caused by emissions from cars and industrial facilities," 20 percent saying it is "mostly caused by natural changes," and 22 percent calling global warming "an unproven theory." Other recent polls back these numbers.

Figure 4 This SeaWiFS image shows dense haze over eastern China. The view looks eastward across the Yellow Sea towards Korea. Visualization date: Dec. 2, 1999. Courtesy of the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and GeoEye.

While this public opinion primarily translates into discussions about what to do about global warming, with the research component largely an afterthought in the policy conversation, relevant Congressional committees have shown a strong interest in the subject, and the new lineup in Congress has made a difference. The House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee devoted a hearing to NASA's Earth science program in late June, with Space News reporting that subcommittee chairman Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) "expressed concerns that NASA was not living up to its lead role in monitoring Earth's changing climate from space."2 Also in June, Senate appropri-ators voted to increase NASA's Fiscal Year 2008 Earth science budget request of $1.5 billion by $138 million, with House appropriators increasing the Earth science budget by $60 million, and with an additional $20 million targeted for research and analysis of Earth science data.

The scientific community also has made its voice heard, through the development of the Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space, the first time the National Research Council of the National Academies has produced a priority-setting roadmap for future Earth science missions.

(Editor’s note: Three of the authors of the Decadal Survey wrote about the urgent need for funding in our Summer Guest Editorial column.)

The Decadal Survey, undertaken with the support of NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey, urges the U.S. government to spend $3 billion a year to fund a series of 17 Earth science missions at minimum between 2010 and 2020, with 15 managed by NASA. While calling for NASA to re-energize a major commitment to Earth science undertaken in the 1990s, the report’s authors warned that due to attrition and funding issues, by 2010 the number of operating Earth-observing instruments on NASA satellites is likely to drop by 40 percent, leaving gaps in data used to forecast severe weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis, and to understand the dynamics of global climate change. Richard Anthes, co-chairman of the two-year study and the American Meteorological Society’s newly elected president, argued that NASA resources devoted to Earth science, measured in constant dollars, have dropped from $2 billion in 2002 to $1.5 billion today, leading to a decline in our country’s capabilities to monitor environmental change. The report called for a reinstitution of the previous funding level.

The move to create the Decadal Survey had its origins in a 2003 conversation between Lennard Fisk, a former NASA Associate Administrator for Science and the newly appointed head of the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board, and Ghassem Asrar, NASA’s Earth science director from 1998-2005.

Said Fisk (in a personal communication):

"I took over the Space Studies Board and I looked around. And everybody else had a Decadal (Survey). I viewed Earth science as being in disarray and being penalized in part for lack of strategy. There was a criticism that the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) leveled on Ghassem when (NASA Administrator Dan) Goldin was still there: "Where’s your strategy?" And without a strategy you’re in the penalty box sort of thing. You just see a program that is crying out for a Decadal (Survey). So we went and sold (it). And we sold it also to NOAA. It’s jointly funded by NOAA and NASA. I wasn’t unaware of how hard this is. The Earth science community is far more fractured than many of the other science communities, and also... there’s a variety of emotions that have run through this, I suspect. One of them is that there is kind of the Rodney Dangerfield view of things—no respect. They’ve been disappointed so many times by NASA. They went from beingthis flagship program extraordinaire, the largest science program ever, to being on really hard times... And then you have the different parts of the community that don't necessarily see things collectively. But the two chairs of this, Berrien Moore and Rick Anthes, I think are doing a superb job of bringing the community along in a systematic way to have a real product that they can be proud of."

While NASA has welcomed the Decadal Survey as a useful tool for guiding the development of future missions, and Administrator Michael Griffin has expressed pride in NASA's leadership role in the Earth science field, he also has said the survey's proposed budget increases for Earth science at NASA may be unrealistic. Or, as he put it in the Goddard Space Symposium speech last March, "When the Decadal Surveys, including the Earth science report, publish rough cost estimates for several missions that are obviously off the mark by a factor of two or more, we have a self-inflicted problem within the space community that affects the credibility of all." The more immediate question facing NASA's Earth science program is whether NASA will receive a budget increase above the President's proposal that will allow for growth in the Earth science mission. As of this writing, the President has said he will veto any domestic spending measures that come in above his budget proposal.

Figure 5 This view of Typhoon Jelawat from SeaWiFS is toward the west by northwest with southern Japan visible at right. Image visualized Aug. 8, 2000. Image provided by SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and GeoEye.

In today's political environment, NASA's Earth science program certainly has drawn more attention parallel to growing public concern about what it means to be living on a warming planet. And the Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space has provided programmatic priorities for Earth science that Administrator Griffin has said NASA "will observe." But when it comes to politics, budgetary concerns hold the key to the program's future. We cannot underestimate the significance of the continuing budget squeeze to prospects for NASA's re-energizing its work in pioneering new Earth science measurements and applications. It is this factor, related to the unsettled political environment, which lends uncertainty to the question as to whether NASA's Earth science program will receive the boost that its more vocal backers hope to achieve. Another factor in this equation is the lobbying power of the human space flight industry and its supporters, which traditionally is a much more focused and organized community than the community of Earth scientists.

Related to the budget issues, the question remains as to whether NASA can reconcile its intention to continue emphasizing its priority mission of human and robotic exploration of the solar system with an arg-uably looming need for NASA to expand its Earth science research for important societal purposes. Should NASA at some point in the future receive direction to do more on both fronts, ideas presented by the scholar James Q. Wilson in his 1984 book, Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, suggests how the agency's culture might successfully respond to the new circumstances. "A major responsibility of an executive is not only, as David Selznick has put it, to infuse the organization with value," writes Wilson, "it is also to discover a way by which different values (and the different cultures that espouse those values) can productively coexist" (p. 105). Wilson adds, "Some government agencies have been endowed with so strong a sense of agency-wide mission that they do a better job than others in managing the tension among rival occupational subcultures" (p.106).

With this point in mind, one way to demonstrate that NASA can perform well more than one important task for the nation is for the space agency to more broadly emphasize what Administrator Michael Griffin has called in congression-al testimony its common commitment to "technical excellence." It does not take away from the prestige and importance of human spaceflight for NASA to more assertively say that Earth science, while more prosaic in execution, is a mission that deserves the attention and pride of the American people.

About the Author

Edward Goldstein received his Ph.D. in Public Administration from The George Washington University in January, 2007 for the dissertation "NASA’s Earth Science Program: The Bureaucratic Struggles of the Space Agency’s Mission to Planet Earth." While Dr. Goldstein works professionally for NASA as a writer/editor, the views expressed in this essay are solely his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NASA or the United States Government.

End Notes

  1. A. Olesen, "Stephen Hawking Warns About Global Warming," The Washington Post, June 22, 2006, p. A3.
  2. Brian Berger, "NASA Official Defends Earth Science Spending," Space News, July 2, 2007, p. 6.

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