Another speaker summed up the discussions of balance by noting that when one goal dwarfs all others and keeps them from being achieved, there is a balance problem. Adjusting such an imbalance takes time. The speaker noted that one can never do enough for balance, but hard choices need to be made and decision makers just have to make the best of it.


SSB member Jack Fellows (University Corporation for Atmospheric Research) moderated the session on civil government missions in Earth observations, and panelists Johannes Loschnigg (NRC staff consultant and former member of the staff of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics), Berrien Moore III (University of New Hampshire), and Soroosh Sorooshian (University of California, Irvine) opened the discussions. Like the sessions that preceded it, the overall tone of this session was pessimistic.

Speakers summarized evidence for significant climate-related changes that are being measured now—for example, the accelerating rate of carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, estimates that nearly half of all current carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are not removed by natural sinks but stay in the atmosphere, and the acceleration of atmospheric CO2 concentration since the late 1960s—and argued that very serious global climate change problems are likely to continue for the next 50 years or so. The issues were described as being research problems rather than operational problems, but speakers noted that federal funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, the operational agency) has been increasing while NASA (the research agency) has experienced decreasing funding. One speaker described this situation as “a perfect storm.”

A speaker in an earlier session had argued that a critical need is for the United States to rebuild its leadership capacity in Earth science. Recognizing that NASA Earth observations are embedded in both national and international programs, the speaker posed several strategic questions, as follows:

  • How should NASA participate in the national Earth science program?

  • How can NASA regain interagency and international high ground?

  • How can NASA regain the technical high ground?

Responding, in part, to these questions and the questions posed for the session panelists (see Appendix B), one speaker suggested that the basic division of labor should continue to be that NASA does the scientific and technological research and then hands the results off to NOAA for applying them to operational responsibilities. Other speakers agreed that the two agencies should retain their currently assigned roles. However, the two agencies have distinctly different cultures that influence their priorities. The Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission was cited as an example of a transition failure. Because its research phase had ended, NASA wished to terminate the mission or hand the mission over to NOAA, but NOAA did not wish to assume the operational costs in spite of the mission’s operational value.6 Similarly, the restructuring of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System broke down in the sense that the Department of Defense drove the restructuring, while NOAA retreated to those elements that supported its core weather-monitoring and weather-forecasting mission and NASA ended up not being much of a player in decisions in spite of its research needs. One participant noted that when considering interagency activities, it is important to recognize that NASA and NOAA have distinctly different cultures. Another participant noted that as a general rule it is not a practical idea to fly research instruments on operational missions.


National Research Council, Assessment of the Benefits of Extending the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission: A Perspective from the Research and Operations Communities, Interim Report, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2006.

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