The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cutting NASA’s earth science budget is short-sighted and a threat

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Guest commentary

When I went to bed last night, I had no intention of writing this commentary. However, I literally could not sleep contemplating the reckless cuts to NASA’s earth sciences budget being proposed by some in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Phil Plait at Slate and Capital Weather Gang recently documented the stark and primitive cuts being proposed for the NASA authorization bill.

[Massive cuts proposed to NASA earth science budget draw protest]

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, one of the few people that has actually seen our home planet from the vantage point of space, issued a statement noting that proposed cuts, “gut our Earth science program and threatens to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events…” This statement is measured and appropriate, but I am writing to amplify this statement.

Cuts in the $300-500 million dollar range as proposed literally take NASA’s earth science program from the “enhanced” smart phone era back to the first-generation “flip” phones or maybe the rotary phone. It also fundamentally challenges the Congressional mandate of the 1958 Space Act creating NASA. I find the following parts of the Act compelling:

“The aeronautical and space activities of the United States shall be conducted so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:

The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space … The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes… .The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere… The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defenses of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency…”

I am a former scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and worked on missions to improve our understanding and capabilities in weather prediction, monitoring of hurricanes, and assessment of flood potential. As the former deputy project scientist for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, I assure you that the level of cuts proposed for NASA’s earth sciences  program would not only harm but end many programs and jeopardize many federal and private sector jobs. The engineering, ground systems, science, and support work of NASA earth science missions is supported by some of the most vibrant private aerospace and science-technology companies in the world.  And they are U.S. companies.

A few more examples of the value of the NASA earth sciences program are warranted.

I served on a National Academy of Science panel that examined national security implications of climate change on U.S. Naval Operations. This study was commissioned by the Navy itself. We found that Naval Operations depend on accurate knowledge of ocean-atmospheric processes (e.g., ocean currents, changes in sea ice or level, salinity, and so on). Since most of Earth is ocean or inaccessible terrain, satellite platforms are essential for military and civilian operations. This is even more critical as the United States takes over leadership of the Arctic Council.

Does anyone remember the devastation cause by the hybrid hurricane-mid-latitude storm called “Sandy?” Yep, I thought you would. The European and United States weather modeling centers concluded that the 6-9 day forecast accuracy would have suffered without satellite data, some supplied by NASA.

The vast majority of people don’t realize that one of the reasons the European and U.S. weather models have improved is that they integrate atmospheric, land, and ocean conditions. NASA and various U.S. aerospace companies have a close relationship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather satellite program. However, I want to emphasize that the data that goes into the weather models are not just NOAA data. A host of NASA datasets are included too. Harming our weather forecasting ability has direct impact on our economy, agricultural productive, commercial aviation, military operations, and more.

I host The Weather Channel’s Sunday talk show Weather Geeks. This Sunday we examine the role of NASA’s Precipitation Measurement Missions on science and societal applications. For example, NOAA’s National Hurricane Center utilizes these satellites to fix hurricane or typhoon storm centers when they are out of range of the “hurricane hunter” aircraft. This application is hidden from the public but vital.

Herein, I have sampled why “political gamesmanship” with NASA’s earth sciences budget is dangerous. This is not an alarmist rant but rather insight from someone intimately aware of the earth science program and how it is integrated into scientific research, national operations, and inspiring the next generation of Earth scientists or engineers.

More importantly, none of us has a “vacation planet” we can go to for the weekend, so I argue that NASA’s mission to study planet Earth should be a “no-brainer.”

Dr. Marshall Shepherd is the Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and Geography at the University of Georgia and 2013 President of the American Meteorological Society. He hosts Weather Channel’s Weather Geeks. He is also a member of the Earth Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council.