Proposed Budget Cuts to NASA’s Earth Science Division Are Damaging for All of Us

March 5, 2018 | 4:58 pm
Earth rise above the moon. Apollo 8 mission, Dec. 24, 1968. Photo: NASA
Rachel Licker
Principal Climate Scientist

I think it is safe to say that no other part of our government inspires as much excitement among the American public as NASA does. Kids across the country dress up as NASA astronauts each Halloween and families plan vacations to visit NASA space flight centers. We all look in awe at the images NASA satellites generate of our own home, Planet Earth.

That said, most of us don’t get quite as excited by NASA’s budget. I’m going to dedicate the next few moments to exploring why NASA’s budget is super cool and super important. In particular, I’m going to focus on the important work that NASA is doing to make our life here on Earth safer and more prosperous, and review what the Trump administration has in store for NASA’s Earth Science work.

The bottom line is, despite the fact that Congress recently passed a bill to increase NASA’s spending levels, NASA’s Earth Science Division is still facing cuts.

NASA’s not just for rocket scientists

NASA’s Earth Science Division provides decision makers, our armed forces, the private sector, and citizens with critical information on how our Earth works and the state of our planet—information that can be used to assess risks, protect American lives and infrastructure, and identify opportunities for our nation. For example:

  • According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, over the last decade extreme weather events and wildfires cost the federal government more than $350 billion. More importantly, these kinds of events have led to enormous losses of life across the country. In an effort to help the nation avoid the losses and costs associated with these kinds of events, scientists in NASA’s Earth Science Division are currently working to improve wildfire forecasts as well as our understanding of how hurricanes form.
  • NASA Earth scientists also produce weekly indicators of groundwater and soil moisture drought that are fed into the National Drought Monitor. These scientists produce the drought indicators using a combination of land-based water storage data collected by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission, other observations, and computer models.
  • Landsat—a joint program between NASA’s Earth Science Division and USGS—provides the longest-running record of Earth’s land from space to date. The sensor provides information that is used by a wide variety of sectors—from forest management to public health to water resource management. 

NASA’s 2019 Earth Science portfolio by the numbers

Hopefully by now it is clear that NASA’s Earth Science work is really important for Americans. Unfortunately, for the 2019 fiscal year (FY19), the president has proposed cutting NASA’s Earth Science Division budget by 6.5% relative to 2017 enacted levels (Table 3). The proposal seeks to reduce funds available for Earth science research, missions, and technology.

Stepping back for a moment, the administration has actually proposed increasing NASA’s overall budget in FY19. In light of the above-mentioned bill that increases NASA’s spending cap, the administration added $300 million to their initial proposal of $19.9 billion for NASA’s FY19 budget. This is an increase from FY17’s operational budget of $19.7 billion. The administration proposed that these additional funds be largely directed to the their space Exploration campaign, as well as to NASA facilities and aeronautics basic research.

None of the additional funds would be used to restore NASA’s Earth Science budget to at least its current level in the president’s proposal.

Table 1. NASA’s Earth Science Division budget figures (in millions of US Dollars) for Fiscal Year 2017 (FY17), the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019 (FY19), and the percent change (%).

What would get cut?

Following the President’s FY18 budget, the administration has again proposed terminating four Earth Science missions: the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity (CLARREO) Pathfinder mission. (For more information on these missions, please visit my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel’s excellent review.)

The president has also proposed terminating the Carbon Monitoring System, the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), and the following measures:

  • The proposal recommends a reduction to NASA’s Earth Science Technology program. This program develops and funds a wide range of new technologies that push the envelope in terms of how we can observe and measure our Earth. For example, the Earth Science Technology Office is using cube satellites as a lower cost/lower risk way to test technologies in space that can then be scaled up.
  • NASA’s Earth Science Research program is advancing our understanding of how the Earth works—from improving predictions of extreme events to furthering understanding of how our home planet responds to human and natural changes. The program also analyzes data collected by NASA’s satellites and other airborne missions. For example, NASA’s Earth Science Research program is working to develop new methods to diagnose severe storms in real time using the Lightning Mapper Sensor.

Given the increased risks we are facing here on Earth as a result of human-caused changes in our planet, and the opportunities available to our public and private sector from Earth monitoring data, this is not the moment to reduce spending levels in NASA’s Earth Science Division.

The Earth observations and innovations that come out of NASA’s Earth Science Division lead to better forecasts and predictions of extreme weather, information on land use that is vital for resource managers and public health officials, and more. These new technologies and insights are then operationalized at NOAA, which makes this information matter for people’s daily lives (NOAA’s own budget is facing dramatic reductions).

Instead, NASA’s Earth Science Division should be equipped with the funds it needs to carry out this critical work so that our nation can remain at the cutting edge and thrive.