NASA plans big boost to climate research budget

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By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

NASA officials laid out plans Wednesday to boost spending on climate research substantially over the next five years, to make up for cutbacks during the Bush administration.

Edward Weiler, the agency's associate administrator for science, said that NASA's Earth Science budget will get a $2.4 billion, or 62 percent, increase through 2015. By that point, the program will have launched as many as 10 new missions, collecting information about ocean temperatures, ice coverage, ozone depletion and the central question of how much carbon dioxide is being released through human activities.

The budget increase reflects both a campaign promise by President Obama to focus far more on the threat of climate change and what NASA officials called a "philosophical shift" on the issue. From now on, they said, the agency will place a higher priority on collecting a broad range of interrelated climate data and to make sure it is done in a long-term, continuous way.

"The key to Earth system science is to make multiple measurements more or less simultaneously of many different quantities -- that's the only way we can understand how the various processes that define Earth system interact," said Michael Freilich, Earth Science Division director.

NASA has 13 climate research satellites in orbit, which provide much of the needed information, Freilich said, but "they're all old," with all but one "well beyond their design lifetimes."

Under the new plan, the capabilities won't dramatically change, he said, but the new funds will allow for improvements, innovations and replacements that would not have been possible in the pre-Obama budgets. "The missions getting old would have failed and NASA would have played a much smaller role" in Earth and climate science, Freilich said.

NASA officials said that three climate research missions were canceled during the Bush administration, and another -- the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite initially conceived by Vice President Al Gore -- was put on indefinite hold after it was built. Of the 10 climate research missions now scheduled, only one is new to the program: a follow-up to a satellite that proved effective at finding where underground water aquifers are being depleted.

Five of the soon-to-fly satellites have been in development for years but didn't have firm launch dates because funding was uncertain. Another is an ozone monitor that will attach to the International Space Station -- a first for the Earth Science Division. The Obama administration wants to extend the life of the space station five years past the previously budgeted cutoff date of 2015 and has committed to a science initiative initially planned for the ISS but set aside for lack of funding.

The steep rise in NASA spending on climate research contrasts with the generally flat budgets projected for other NASA missions. The agency's budget crunch has been felt most painfully in the administration's proposal to scrap the Constellation program -- which was planned as the next generation of rockets and spacecraft to fly to the space station, the moon and, ultimately, Mars -- and replace it in part with an effort based on private companies.

That plan is proving to be a tough sell in Congress, especially with members whose districts would benefit from Constellation. But Freilich said he has testified before Congress as well about the Earth science increases and has heard little opposition.


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