NASA Earth Science Mission Hampered by Budget, Launcher Issues

Earth_from_Orbit
Although NASA’s Earth Science Division is substantially meeting stakeholder’s needs for Earth observation data, the space agency has fallen behind on launching an ambitious series of missions planned out nearly a decade ago, according to an Office of Inspector General (IG) report released last month.

“NASA’s Earth science portfolio adequately reflects stakeholder input, ESD’s approach to developing the Architecture Plan was reasonable, and the Plan includes missions that address all six of the Agency’s Earth science focus areas,” the audit said. “However, due primarily to budget issues and the availability and affordability of launch vehicles, NASA has not carried out the Architecture Plan as intended and is increasingly reliant on an aging Earth observation infrastructure to monitor the planet.”

The IG conducted the audit to see how well NASA had responded to the National Research Council’s (NRC) 2007 Decadal Survey, which identified Earth science priorities and recommended 15 specific missions.

In response, NASA published its Plan for a Climate-Centric Architecture for Earth Observations and Applications from Space that described 20 missions the space agency planned to undertake. The Architecture Plan took into account the Decadal Survey as well as administration and Congressional priorities.

“Although the Architecture Plan envisioned launching 17 missions by 2020, including 11 by the end of 2016, as of September 2016 the Agency had launched only 7 missions, and it is unlikely the others will launch on the schedule outlined in the Plan,” the IG report said. “Consequently, as missions are delayed the Architecture Plan has become increasingly outdated and includes missions that may become a lower priority for the science community.”

The audit found the program has faced difficulties with the availability of launch vehicles. The main choice has been between ULA’s Atlas V booster, which is costly but highly reliable, and Orbital ATK’s much cheaper and less reliable Taurus launcher. (The company has since renamed the booster as Minotaur C.)

NASA lost two satellites to Taurus launch failures: the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) spacecraft in February 2009, and the Glory satellite in March 2011. NASA built a replacement for the OCO satellite but not Glory.

The audit said NASA has since begun designing spacecraft to launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and other boosters under development. The Falcon 9 has had reliability problems as well, suffering two catastrophic failures in about 14 months.

The IG found Earth Science missions have suffered delays due to a range of factors that include budget constraints, unrealistic cost estimates, cost growth, and changing Congressional and administration priorities.

“While the delays have not prevented NASA from substantially meeting stakeholder needs for Earth observation data, more than half the Agency’s 16 operating missions have surpassed their designed lifespan and are increasingly prone to failures that could result in critical data loss and gaps in long-term observation records,” the report concluded.

The audit noted that the number of products delivered to users has risen from about 8.14 million in 2000 to 1.42 billion in 2015.  Government agencies, scientists and private companies rely upon the space agency to process raw data into usable information, the report said.

A new Decadal Survey is expected in 2017 to assess Earth science priorities. The IG recommended NASA update its Earth Science Architecture Plan every five years and develop strategies to acquire data from commercial remote sensing companies. NASA officials concurred with the recommendations.

Advisers to Donald Trump have said the new president wants to cut NASA’s Earth Science budget and move responsibility for observing the home planet over to NOAA so the space agency can focus on deep space exploration.

Trump officials have been particularly critical of research into global climate change, referring to it as “politically correct environmental monitoring.” The president elect once said global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese government to destroy American industry.

A summary of the audit follows.

NASA’s Earth Science Mission Portfolio
NASA Office of Inspector General
Report No. IG-17-003
November 2, 2016
Full Report (PDF)

Why We Performed This Audit

For more than 50 years, NASA has launched satellites and other scientific instruments into space to observe Earth and collect information on climate, weather, and natural phenomena such as earthquakes, droughts, floods, and wildfires. This Earth observation data provides individual citizens, commercial entities, and government and military organizations information to prepare for and react to weather phenomena and natural disasters, manage agricultural and other natural resources, and operate transportation systems.

NASA’s Earth science missions are heavily influenced by external stakeholders including the President, Congress, other Federal agencies, and the National Research Council (NRC), which in 2007 issued a Decadal Survey identifying Earth science priorities and recommending NASA pursue 15 specific missions. In response, NASA’s Earth Science Division (ESD) published NASA’s Plan for a Climate-Centric Architecture for Earth Observations and Applications from Space (Architecture Plan), which attempted to incorporate both the recommendations of the Decadal Survey and Presidential and congressional priorities, and described 20 Earth science missions the Agency planned to undertake.

In this audit, we assessed NASA’s management of its Earth science portfolio to determine whether the Agency is effectively meeting stakeholder needs, how it is addressing challenges to implementing its Earth science priorities, and the ways in which stakeholders use the Earth observation data NASA collects. In addition, we reviewed the status of the 69 satellite and instrument missions in NASA’s Earth science portfolio as of September 2016. To complete this work, among other things, we reviewed relevant NASA policies and procedures; assessed publicly available data regarding missions currently in planning, development, implementation, or operations; and interviewed relevant NASA officials and other stakeholders.

What We Found

NASA’s Earth science portfolio adequately reflects stakeholder input, ESD’s approach to developing the Architecture Plan was reasonable, and the Plan includes missions that address all six of the Agency’s Earth science focus areas. However, due primarily to budget issues and the availability and affordability of launch vehicles, NASA has not carried out the Architecture Plan as intended and is increasingly reliant on an aging Earth observation infrastructure to monitor the planet. Specifically, although the Architecture Plan envisioned launching 17 missions by 2020, including 11 by the end of 2016, as of September 2016 the Agency had launched only 7 missions, and it is unlikely the others will launch on the schedule outlined in the Plan. Consequently, as missions are delayed the Architecture Plan has become increasingly outdated and includes missions that may become a lower priority for the science community. While the delays have not prevented NASA from substantially meeting stakeholder needs for Earth observation data, more than half the Agency’s 16 operating missions have surpassed their designed lifespan and are increasingly prone to failures that could result in critical data loss and gaps in long-term observation records.

Over the past several decades, NASA has faced constraints affecting the management and balance of its Earth science portfolio, including (1) unrealistic cost estimates, (2) cost growth, (3) budgetary constraints, (4) changing priorities and direction from the President and Congress, (5) launch vehicle issues, and (6) mission and instrument failures. While ESD has taken steps to address these constraints by forming partnerships with other Government entities and foreign space agencies, improving the methodology for NRC Decadal Surveys (including the second Earth Science Decadal Survey expected in 2017), and extending current missions, these issues are likely to continue to affect the Agency’s Earth science portfolio.

Over the past 15 years the number of products delivered to users by NASA has risen dramatically from about 8.14 million in 2000 to 1.42 billion in 2015. Government agencies, scientists, private entities, and other stakeholders rely on NASA to process raw information received from Earth observation systems into useable data. Moreover, NASA’s Earth observation data is routinely used by government agencies, policymakers, and researchers to expand understanding of the Earth system and to enhance economic competitiveness, protect life and property, and develop policies to help protect the planet. Finally, NASA is working to address suggestions that it use commercially provided data to augment its Earth observation data. However, NASA must reconcile its policy that promotes open sharing of data at minimal cost to users with a commercial business model under which fees may create a barrier to use.

What We Recommended

To improve NASA’s management of its Earth science portfolio, we recommended the Agency update the Architecture Plan every 5 years to align with the release of Earth Science Decadal Surveys and mid-term Surveys to account for portfolio changes, and develop strategies to engage with commercial companies to investigate cost-beneficial acquisition, disposition, and use of Earth observing data. The Agency concurred with our recommendations and described planned actions. We find the actions responsive and will close the recommendations upon verification the Agency has taken the planned action.

Save

Save

Save