Panel Criticizes NASA For Delaying Missions

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005

A leading panel of experts sharply rebuked NASA yesterday for canceling or delaying Earth-observing space missions, blaming President Bush's moon-Mars initiative for siphoning money from an environment-monitoring satellite system that is "at risk of collapse."

The National Research Council panel called on NASA to reevaluate decisions to cancel projects designed to perform tasks including measuring aerosols in the atmosphere and prolonging data collection by the venerable Landsat system, which has been studying land use and changes in Earth's surface for more than 30 years.

"Today this system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse," said the report from the council, an arm of the independent National Academies of Science. "These decisions appear to be driven by a major shift in priorities at a time when NASA is moving to implement a new vision for space exploration."

Concern about the future of NASA's $1.49 billion earth science program, whose satellites perform tasks including mapping deforestation and predicting El NiƱo, arose early last year after Bush called on the agency to focus attention on human space travel, with the aim of returning to the moon by 2020 and eventually traveling to Mars.

Since then, many scientists and lawmakers have wondered which projects would be cut to fund the new initiative. Congress has already protested planned reductions in NASA's aeronautics budget and questioned the agency's decision to cancel a servicing mission to keep alive the Hubble Space Telescope.

The president's 2006 NASA budget request shows an 8 percent funding reduction -- to $1.37 billion -- for earth science. The request was 14 percent below the $1.6 billion that the administration earlier had predicted in 2006.

Panel co-chairman Richard A. Anthes, president of the Boulder, Colo.-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, said earth science had long suffered from underfunding.

"We can't blame the current state of affairs entirely on the [moon-Mars] initiative," he said, but "it is certainly part of it."

Alphonso V. Diaz, NASA's associate administrator for science, said he was "frankly startled" by the harsh tone of the council report, realizing that "we need to have a lot more dialogue with the [scientific] community" about what he described as a transition from a "NASA-centric" earth science program to a "national program" based on cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Diaz, in a telephone interview, said NASA is reviewing earth science programs to minimize gaps between the demise of the agency's current satellites and the planned launches, beginning in 2009, of satellites from the new National Polar-orbiting Environmental Operational Satellite System, a joint venture of NASA, the oceanic and atmospheric administration and the Defense Department.

Diaz said "it's just not true" that NASA's earth science funding decisions were linked to the moon-Mars initiative.

Diaz will appear before the House Committee on Science today for a hearing timed to coincide with release of the council's findings -- described by the panel as an interim report from a more comprehensive "decadal survey" of earth science research, scheduled for release at the end of 2006. The report was commissioned by NASA, the oceanic and atmospheric administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

"I look at the bottom line for earth science, and I look at the [funding] direction, and there are cuts," said House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) in a telephone interview. "I don't want NASA to be a single-mission agency; I don't want all the resources devoted to exploration."

The report criticized NASA for repeatedly delaying development of a new rainfall measuring satellite and canceling Landsat as well as sophisticated missions aimed at measuring ocean wind speed, analyzing atmospheric aerosols, monitoring coastal waters, and studying temperature and water vapor readings from the atmosphere.

Diaz emphasized that most of these functions will be performed aboard satellites in the new polar-orbiting system, but Anthes, speaking in a telephone interview, noted that the oceanic and atmospheric administration is more interested in operational weather prediction rather than long-term climate or environmental research.

"We hope the transition is going to be wildly successful," Anthes said, but it is not clear that weather satellites will be able to fulfill research needs. "If we're going to do research, chances are we're going to need a research program."

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