8/31/2005

HoustonChronicle.com - NASA criticized for ending projects

April 27, 2005, 10:09PM
NASA criticized for ending projects
Decisions put Earth-observing satellite system 'at risk of collapse,' a panel warns
By GUY GUGLIOTTA
Washington Post

WASHINGTON - A leading panel of experts sharply rebuked NASA on Wednesday for canceling or delaying Earth-observing space missions, blaming President Bush's moon-Mars initiative for siphoning funds from an environment-monitoring satellite system that is at risk of collapse.
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The National Research Council panel called on NASA to re-evaluate decisions to cancel projects designed to do everything from measuring aerosols in the atmosphere to prolonging data collection by the venerable Landsat system, which has been studying land use and changes in the 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 do everything from mapping deforestation to predicting El Niño, 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 in order to fund the new initiative. Congress already has 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 for 2006.

Panel co-Chairman Richard 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."

NASA Associate Administrator for Science Alphonso Diaz 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 in order 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 Operational Satellite System.

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 as an interim report from a "decadal survey" of Earth science research, scheduled for release at the end of 2006.

"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 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."

HoustonChronicle.com - NASA criticized for ending projects

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