Date:  May 2, 2012



Report Warns of Rapid Decline in U.S. Earth Observation Capabilities;

Next-Generation Missions Hindered by Budget Shortfalls, Launch Failures


WASHINGTON — A new National Research Council report says that budget shortfalls, cost-estimate growth, launch failures, and changes in mission design and scope have left U.S. earth observation systems in a more precarious position than they were five years ago.  The report cautions that the nation's earth observing system is beginning a rapid decline in capability, as long-running missions end and key new missions are delayed, lost, or cancelled.


"The projected loss of observing capability will have profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards," said Dennis Hartmann, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.  "Our ability to measure and understand changes in Earth's climate and life support systems will also degrade."


The report comes five years after the Research Council published "Earth Science and Applications From Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond," a decadal survey that generated consensus recommendations from the earth and environmental science and applications community for a renewed program of earth observations. The new report finds that although NASA responded favorably and aggressively to the decadal survey, the required budget was not achieved, greatly slowing progress.  Changes in program scope without commensurate funding, directed by the Office of Management and Budget and by Congress, also slowed progress.  A further impediment, the report says, is the absence of a highly reliable and affordable medium-class launch capability.


Despite these challenges, NASA has been successful in launching some of the missions in development when the survey report was published.  It has also made notable progress in establishing the "Venture-class" program, as recommended in the decadal survey. The suborbital program and the airborne science program are additional areas where significant progress is being made.  In accord with the decadal survey's recommendations, NASA also aggressively pursued international partnerships to mitigate shortfalls and stretch resources.   


In the near term, the report concludes, budgets for NASA's earth science program will remain inadequate to meet pressing national needs.  Therefore the agency should focus on two necessary actions: defining and implementing a cost-constrained approach to mission development, and identifying and empowering a cross-mission earth system science and engineering team to advise on the execution of decadal survey missions.


The report also reviews the state of NOAA's satellite earth observation program, an integral part of the decadal survey's overall strategy and tied to the success of NASA's program.  Budget shortfalls and cost overruns in NOAA's next generation of polar environmental satellites account for the slow rate of progress.  An interagency framework, recommended in the decadal survey to assist NASA and NOAA in optimizing resources, has yet to be realized.  This framework is even more crucial now that both agencies face fiscal constraints, and its importance is reiterated in the present report.


The study was sponsored by NASA.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.



Lorin Hancock, Media Relations Officer

Shaquanna Shields, Media Relations Assistant

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail



Pre-publication copies of Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Midterm Assessment of NASA’s Implementation of the Decadal Survey are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

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Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences

Space Studies Board


Committee on the Assessment of NASA’s Earth Science Programs


Dennis L. Hartmann (chair)

Department of Atmospheric Sciences
University of Washington



Mark R. Abbott

Dean and Professor
College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences
Oregon State University



Richard A. Anthes

President Emeritus
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Boulder, Colo.


Philip E. Ardanuy

Chief Scientist and Director, Remote Sensing Applications

Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems

Sterling, Va.


Stacey Boland

Senior Systems Engineer and Observatory System Engineer for OCO-2

Earth Mission Concepts
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Pasadena, Calif.


Antonio J. Busalacchi Jr.

Director, Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, and Professor

Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science

University of Maryland

College Park


Anny Cazenave1

Senior Scientist

Laboratoire d'Etudes en Geophysique et Oceanographie Spatiales

Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales

Toulouse, France


Ruth S. DeFries1


Department of Ecology, Evolution,

and Environmental Biology

Columbia University

New York City


Lee-Lueng Fu2

JPL Fellow
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Pasadena, Calif.


Bradford H. Hager

Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Earth Sciences

Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and

Planetary Sciences

Massachusetts Institute of Technology



Hung-Lung Allen Huang

Distinguished Scientist

Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies

Space Science Engineering Center

University of Wisconsin



Anthony C. Janetos

Joint Global Change Research Institute
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory/University of Maryland

College Park, Md.


Dennis P. Lettenmaier2

Robert and Irene Sylvester Professor of Civil

and Environmental Engineering

University of Washington



Jennifer A. Logan

Senior Research Fellow
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Harvard University

Cambridge, Mass.


Molly Macauley

Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow
Energy and Natural Resources Division
Resources for the Future

Washington, D.C.


Anne W. Nolin

Associate Professor
Department of Geosciences
Oregon State University



Joyce E. Penner

Ralph J. Cicerone Distinguished Professor of

Atmospheric Science and Associate Chair

Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences

University of Michigan

Ann Arbor


Michael J. Prather

Fred Kavli Chair and Professor
Department of Earth System Science
University of California



David S. Schimel

Chief Science Officer and Principal Investigator
National Ecological Observatory Network Inc.

Boulder, Colo.


William F. Townsend

Independent Aerospace Consultant

Annapolis, Md.


Thomas H. Vonder Haar2

Director Emeritus

Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere; and

University Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science

College of Engineering

Colorado State University

Fort Collins





Arthur A. Charo

Study Director


Lewis Groswald

Research Associate



1         Member, National Academy of Sciences

2         Member, National Academy of Engineering