NASA Denies Funding for Key Satellite
Decision on Orbiter Frustrates Scientists
By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2004; Page A01
NASA is allowing a highly successful satellite to fall out of Earth's orbit by refusing to fund it for as little as $28 million, dismaying the scientists and forecasters who use its unique abilities to study climate change and track hurricanes.
NASA officials said engineers did not order a planned firing of its rockets in early July to hold the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite in orbit 241 miles above Earth. Without periodic assists from its thrusters, atmospheric drag will send the satellite's remains to a watery grave in six to nine months.
Engineers said the satellite, a joint venture with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, is working perfectly and could still be saved, but NASA officials said neither the Japanese nor other U.S. agencies were willing to contribute to the estimated $28 million to $36 million needed to keep the mission operating for as long as two more years.
The satellite is a unique space platform whose instruments have proved invaluable not only to researchers studying global change, but also to meteorologists who use its one-of-a-kind "rain radar" to probe deep into cloud cover to determine whether the makings of a cyclone lurk there.
In 2002, a NASA study determined that the potential lifesaving value of the satellite was great enough to justify keeping it aloft until it ran out of fuel and tumbled unguided back to Earth, possibly killing or injuring someone.
The decision instead to use a "controlled de-orbit" for the satellite, known by its initials TRMM, was announced quietly July 13 in an internal NASA memo, and came at a time when NASA's Earth observation budget is shrinking as the agency begins to focus on President Bush's plan for human exploration of the moon and Mars.
NASA officials said the agency decided to de-orbit TRMM because the money saved could be put to better use on a next-generation satellite scheduled for launch in 2011.
The Bush administration is already facing harsh public criticism for its decision to cancel space shuttle servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope, and congressional critics of the Bush initiative have publicly warned NASA not to rob Hubble or other valuable programs -- especially in earth science -- to fund the new undertaking.
But congressional sources said lawmakers do not necessarily see TRMM's problem as the harbinger of cuts to come: "TRMM would be a problem regardless, because it's an unanticipated expense," and not part of the NASA budget, said a knowledgeable Republican congressional staffer who declined to be identified. "NASA may even deserve credit for being willing to ante up" some of the money.
Or not. NASA has said little about TRMM's demise, but researchers all over the country and in Japan are questioning the decision. Data from TRMM on rainfall and storms are used by climate scientists and meteorologists all over the world.
"Unlike a lot of missions, it's worked great from the beginning -- something of a miracle in satellite meteorology, and we're still on the rising part of the curve," University of Washington atmospheric scientist and TRMM team member Robert Houze said in a telephone interview. "It seems almost unfathomable to me that you would not let it live out its full lifetime."
House Science Committee chief of staff David J. Goldston acknowledged in a telephone interview that his office had gotten "probably in the last week an inch-high pile of letters from researchers around the United States saying we're missing this great opportunity. We don't have a position yet, but we are looking into it."
TRMM was launched in Japan on Thanksgiving Day 1997 into an orbit that girdles the globe ranging from 35 degrees north of the equator -- the latitude of North Carolina -- to 35 degrees south (Santiago, Chile).
TRMM measures and analyzes rainfall, using microwave, infrared and lightning sensors supplied by the United States, and the Japanese-built rain radar. Together they provide the most detailed information on rainfall patterns ever created, from the part of the world that influences global climate more than any other.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company