The ability of U.S. scientists to monitor changes in the planet's climate, natural hazards, and land surface continues to deteriorate, warns a report from the U.S. National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) that was released today. Aging satellites are being replaced too slowly, the report concludes, and by 2020 the country may have only 25% of its current observing capacity.
The new panel was asked to review progress since the NRC's decadal survey of NASA's Earth-observing satellite missions was completed in 2007. That survey cautioned that the U.S. observation program was at risk. NASA has attempted to uphold the priorities outlined in the decadal survey, the committee notes. But the observation network has suffered as long-running missions end and new missions are lost, delayed, or canceled.
The biggest extenuating factor is a lack of money. The decadal survey had assumed that the administration's Earth science budget would be restored to 2002 funding levels of $2 billion per year; instead, since 2007the budget has never risen above $1.5 billion. That shortfall has made it impossible to execute the recommended program, the report notes. But the network has also been weakened by lost satellites, failed launches, and a lack of medium-class launch vehicles to deliver the satellites to space. (The only currently produced medium-class launch vehicle, the Taurus rocket, failed in three of its last four launches, including the 2009 Orbiting Carbon Observatory and the 2011 Glory launches.)
And "mission creep"—escalating costs as scientific requirements for missions expand during development—has also taken its toll. To bring mission costs down, the committee recommends considering mission cost caps. At the same time, the committee recommends considering missions as part of a total package, rather than considering the scientific benefits and costs of each mission in isolation. "Individual missions may have a reduction in science capability, but for the greater good," Busalacchi says.