NASA's Earth Science Programs Come Under Scrutiny
Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), chair of the House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, held a September 10 hearing to examine problems and delays with NASA's Earth Science Enterprise, and specifically its Earth Observing System (EOS.) "I guess everyone here knows that I have not always been this program's biggest fan," Rohrabacher announced in opening the hearing. "But I am a supporter of earth science research, and of the cost-effective use of space technology to learn more about how our environment works." At the same time, Rohrabacher praised the new head of the Earth Science program, Ghassem Asrar, for the progress he has made in reducing a large back-up of unspent funds (uncosted carryovers) the program had built up, and for promoting the purchase of commercial remote sensing data, a concept Rohrabacher has espoused repeatedly.
The EOS program has recently experienced delays in the launch of two satellites, AM-1 and Landsat-7, and also continuing problems with its Data and Information System (EOSDIS.) Asrar, who took over as NASA's Associate Administrator for the program in February, explained that the delay of Landsat-7, slipping its launch from December 1998 to no earlier than March 1999, was due to a substitution of certain diodes which caused a power supply failure during testing. The AM-1 launch has been delayed from June 1998 to at least May 1999 because of problems with the Flight Operations Segment of the EOSDIS core system.
Asrar also testified that he has implemented procedures to reduce the uncosted carryover to a level comparable to that of NASA's Human Space Flight programs by the end of next year. He explained that the build-up of funds which have been obligated for work, but not yet paid out, was due to several factors. The numerous redesigns experienced by the EOS program since its inception in 1991 caused delays in obligating funds. Additionally, programs like EOS with a large research and development component involve more time between obligation of funds and actual payment for work done. Asrar reported that all the carryover funds have been "put against" contracts or grants, and the work is currently being carried out, but NASA is being billed more slowly than expected.
Robert Winokur of NOAA described NOAA's Environmental Information Services system, and its cooperative efforts with NASA in archiving and managing environmental data. Asked about overlap and duplication with NASA, Winokur said NASA was largely a development agency, and transitioned new technologies and capabilities to NOAA. Patrick O'Connell of Raytheon, the prime contractor for the EOSDIS core system, noted in his statement the challenges inherent in "managing one of the world's largest data archive development efforts." He testified that in addition to the difficulties of "pushing the limits of current data management technology," Raytheon has been experiencing personnel loss on the order of 35 percent per year in the information technology field. Asked by Rohrabacher whether individuals were "jumping ship" because they did not think the EOSDIS effort would succeed, O'Connell responded that the field was highly competitive and there was no single factor involved.
Saying the data should be used to change and correct some aspects of life on Earth, Rohrabacher expressed concern that EOS would be collecting huge amounts of environmental information that would not be utilized. Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) echoed this concern, questioning whether there would be enough PhDs to make use of all the data to be gathered. Asrar pointed out that NASA's grants to universities support the education of graduate students, and also noted that many other agencies, as well as industry, would use the data. Weldon went on to pursue a comment by Winokur that much of NOAA's old data on paper and film was decaying. Winokur described efforts to save as much as possible within the agency's resources, but admitted that NOAA "could benefit from additional funds." Saying "it seems the old data is as good as the new data," Weldon characterized letting older data deteriorate while spending "hundreds of millions of dollars" on satellites to collect new data as a "misplaced use of resources."
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) inquired whether EOSDIS delays and development problems would result in reducing its capabilities or requiring additional funding. "We're making every effort not to reduce capabilities of the system," Asrar replied, but added NASA may have to give up some requirements to stay on cost. He said he would come to Congress for additional funds if some capabilities needed to be restored. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) stated that issues like uncosted carryover do not "negate the value of the research." Asrar agreed that the program "has tremendous potential" to solve practical societal problems in agriculture, food production, water and forest resources, and other areas.
Rohrabacher declared that from the beginning he had thought the EOS program was trying to do too much. "We're watching," he warned Asrar. "We have to make sure the taxpayer is getting something" from the program, he said, "not just collecting data."
Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
[an error occurred while processing this directive]