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NISAR, a synthetic aperture radar Earth science mission being jointly developed by NASA and the Indian space agency ISRO, will be a pathfinder for the Earth System Observatory series of missions to follow later in the decade. (credit: NASA)

An aggressive budget for more than just Earth science

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Even before President Biden took office in January, it was clear that his administration was going to emphasize Earth science at NASA. The Biden campaign had identified climate change as a major priority across the government, and the Democratic party platform last summer included, in its brief discussion of space policy, “strengthening” Earth observation missions at both NASA and NOAA (see “Moon 2020-something”, The Space Review, November 9, 2020).

“I view this as an integrated observatory, where we are looking at all the major ‘muscle movements’ of the Earth system,” St. Germain said of the missions recommended by the decadal survey.

The only questions were exactly how NASA’s Earth science program would benefit from that new emphasis on climate change, and whether this would adversely impact other parts of the agency. The first hints to those answers came in early April, when the administration released an outline of its budget proposal for fiscal year 2022. “NASA uses the unique vantage point of space to enhance understanding of Earth systems and to observe the effects of climate change,” the administration said in a one-page section devoted to NASA in the 58-page document.

The budget, it stated, would increase NASA’s $2 billion Earth science program by $250 million in 2022 “to initiate the next generation of Earth- observing satellites to study pressing climate science questions.” That outline, though, didn’t go into further details about what that involved, and didn’t discuss funding levels for other parts of NASA’s science portfolio in the overall $24.7 billion request.

The language, though, suggested NASA was preparing to pursue missions recommended by the most recent Earth science decadal survey in 2018. That report didn’t endorse specific mission concepts but instead what it called “designated observables”: types of observations that the scientists involved in the decadal concluded were the most important to the field. The five such observables were known as aerosols; clouds, convection, and precipitation; surface biology and geology; surface deformation and change; and mass change. The decadal estimated each mission would cost between $300 million and $800 million, but specific cost estimates required design work that NASA had only recently started.

At a committee meeting in March, Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth science division, said four of the five designated observables were nearing the “pre-Phase A” stage, involving more detailed mission concept studies. The exception was the one for surface deformation and change, since it would follow a joint NASA-ISRO synthetic aperture radar mission called NISAR in development for launch as soon as next year.

“I view this as an integrated observatory, where we are looking at all the major ‘muscle movements’ of the Earth system,” she said then. “This has the potential to be the foundation upon which two generations of scientists stand.”

On May 24, the White House announced that those next-generation Earth science missions would be developed as part of a single program, called the Earth System Observatory. NISAR would serve as the pathfinder for that observatory, with the other missions to follow later in the decade.

“It’s pretty exciting,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the next day at a joint meeting of two National Academies committees, the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and the Space Studies Board. “It is going to measure all of the interactions of the atmosphere, land, the ice, and the oceans. And it’s going to do this over the course of the next decade.”

Nelson estimated the total cost of the Earth System Observatory over a decade at $2.5 billion, similar to the estimates of the designated observables outlined in the decadal survey. Nelson’s comments suggested that NISAR would be the first mission of the program, rather than a pathfinder for future missions as the agency’s press release the previous day stated.

On Friday, the White House finally released its full fiscal year 2022 budget proposal. That included NASA’s details budget request, with hundreds of pages of dollar figures and justifications for spending that funding.

“It is going to measure all of the interactions of the atmosphere, land, the ice, and the oceans. And it’s going to do this over the course of the next decade,” Nelson said.

The Earth System Observatory would get $137.8 million in the request, which the agency said will forwards completing mission concept reviews in 2022. Spending would then increase for that program, growing to $686 million in fiscal year 2026, the last year of budget projections included in the 2022 proposal. The mass change mission would launch in 2027 and surface biology and geology in 2028, according the the budget document. Aerosols and clouds, convection, and precipitation would fly on two spacecraft, one launching to an inclined orbit in 2028 and the other to polar orbit in 2030.

As the Earth System Observatory budget grows, so does the overall NASA Earth science budget: from $2.25 billion requested in 2022 to a projected $2.7 billion in 2026. The overall science budget is also growing, though, from $7.93 billion requested in 2022 (up from $7.3 billion in 2021) to a projected $8.64 billion in 2026.

That overall increase put to bed any concerns that an increase in Earth science spending would mean cannibalizing other parts of NASA’s science program. Shortly before the release of the full budget, two Republican leaders of the House Science Committee, Reps. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Brian Babin (R-TX), suggested in a letter to NASA that the agency was prioritizing Earth science over planetary science, citing as evidence an agency decision to delay the competition for the next New Frontiers planetary science mission by two years (see “Red planet scare”, The Space Review, May 24, 2021).

In fact, planetary science, which received $2.7 billion in 2021, would get $3.2 billion in 2022, a larger percentage increase than what Earth science would get. The difference is that planetary science in later years would remain flat, while Earth science grows. That increase in planetary science would largely be absorbed by work on the Mars Sample Return program, whose budget would go from nearly $270 million in 2021 to $653.2 million in 2022, peaking at a projected $800 million in 2024. There are also wedges in the planetary budget for work on the latest New Frontiers mission, the Dragonfly mission to Titan, and for a near Earth object telescope called NEO Surveyor, as well as funding in later years for the next Discovery mission or missions, due to be selected in the coming weeks.

Astrophysics, the next largest part of NASA’s science plans, is more interesting. The overall budget grows slightly, from $1.575 billion in the fiscal year 2022 request to $1.766 billion in 2026. (Both figures include the James Webb Space Telescope, which is effectively flat over this period as the massive, and massively expensive, telescope is finally nearing a launch expected before the end of this calendar year.) Unlike the past few years, the budget includes funding for the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (formerly known as WFIRST), which is near the peak of its funding at about $500 million requested in 2022, declining to about $385 million by 2026 as it approaches launch.

However, the Biden Administration is attempting to cancel something the Trump Administration tried last year, and the Obama Administration years earlier: the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). That project, a Boeing 747 with a 2.5-meter infrared telescope, is one of the most expensive astrophysics missions to operate on an annual basis: its $85 million is currently behind only the Hubble Space Telescope.

“This is a very aggressive, forward-leaning budget for NASA,” Nelson said. “The Biden Administration is proving that science is back.”

NASA, in past efforts to cancel SOFIA, has argued that the scientific production of SOFIA doesn’t justify its cost. “Dramatic improvement in SOFIA’s scientific productivity is not expected,” NASA stated in its budget documents. “The nature of the program, which relies on observations using an expensive platform with expensive consumables, results in low cost efficiency compared to most observatories.” It argued that JWST, once it launches, will be able to perform some of the infrared observations currently done by SOFIA.

SOFIA, though, has enjoyed protection in Congress, which rejected those earlier proposals to cancel SOFIA and took additional steps, such as excluding it from the senior reviews of other astrophysics projects that have exceeded their primary missions.

“It has completed its primary mission, and funding has been consistently added back by Congress,” said Steve Shinn, NASA’s acting chief financial officer, of SOFIA during a call with reporters late Friday to discuss the budget proposal. “The goal is to focus on that higher-priority science.”

Congress hasn’t weighed in yet on that proposal to cancel SOFIA again, or other aspects of the detailed budget proposal, which the administration released just before the long holiday weekend and a recess this week.

Nelson, in the call Friday, emphasized the record level of science funding in the budget proposal. “This is a very aggressive, forward-leaning budget for NASA,” he said. “The Biden Administration is proving that science is back.” But, as Nelson, the former senator, is well aware, Congress will have a say about how aggressive that budget turns out to be for NASA and its science programs.

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