Mission to Planet Earth Could Be Aborted

Congressional critics claim the $33 billion program has the makings of a classic boondoggle

P> Conservative congressional Republicans are resurrecting skepticism about NASA's Mission to Planet Earth, a $33 billion satellite and information technology program designed to track global warming and supplement several federal environmental protection efforts.

In the early 1990s, critics of the MPTE, and its subsidiary, the Earth Observing System and the EOS Data Information System (EOS-DIS) claimed that the scientific rationale for the project was unsound. At the time, then Sen. Al Gore and other environmental followers on Capitol Hill pushed hard for the project, saying the earth was doomed from global warming.

But the General Accounting Office, led by Dr. Peter I. Castruccio, an environmental skeptic and noted scientist, and other federal agencies investigated the program. Though flaws in the design were found, earlier Democratic congresses on the recommendation of the House Science Committee -- led by then-chairman George Brown -- simply rescoped the multibillion project. It survived, as part of a grandiose plan called Mission to Planet Earth in a decidedly downscaled model, but it still relied on federal deficit spending for its sustenance.

But the GOP, led by Rep. Robert Walker, R-Pa., chairman of the House Science Committee and a member of Speaker Newt Gingrich's Conservative Action Team, now questions whether the project can be sustained after 2000, presumably when the federal budget will be balanced.

"I support pursuing a research program that obtains the best affordable research on the fundamental physics of global climate change," said Walker. "But... is the program sustainable in the out years?"

According to the House Science Committee, NASA funding will continue to decline, and will level off at about $13 billion in 2000. The expectation is that the Clinton administration will not increase funding for the agency. What's more, most of the NASA budget is already allocated for other projects. The Space Station is proceeding toward completion and eventual launch, and requires $2.1 billion during the next several years. The space shuttle also will require billions of dollars in funding. And Mission to Planet Earth, which includes EOS and EOS DIS, will reach $1.6 billion by 2000.

"Instead of sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that NASA can do this program on a wish and a prayer, we should be facing the hard fiscal realities of today," said Walker. "Just because MPTE has undergone three restructurings and one reshaping, should we stop reviewing the program?"

Castruccio and other environmental skeptics certainly have Walker's ear -- a fact that worries many advocates of the federal spending initiative. What's more, the fears of ardent environmental activists about the imminent destruction of the earth's atmosphere have been disproved by new science.

This is leading several pre-eminent voices on environmental change -- such as Patrick J. Michaels, a professor at the University of Virginia's Department of Environmental Sciences -- to call for a partial privatization of the project, if federal funding does not suffice. "Might it not be appropriate, in this era of declining funding, for interested parties other than the government to begin to assume some of the research burden?" he said in recent testimony on Capitol Hill.

Building of the EOS satellites has been delayed by contractor TRW due to protests by other bidders. This further clouds the aura of cooperation the program's supporters allege it has in the science community.

NASA associate administrator for MPE, Dr. Charles Kennel, said the agency is "actively considering innovative approaches" to derive benefit from the proposals for EOS and EOS-DIS.

The agency is, in fact, considering outsourcing the data information system to scores of scientists at universities across the land. This could pose a threat to the EOS-DIS contract held by TRW and Hughes. But, overall, it still thinks the program should remain with the agency, and that EOS is a sound scientific project.

"One must go beyond the traditional approach to studying the earth and establish one that is focused on the big picture," said Kennel. "NASA's program expands the conventional, departmentalized scientific approach to encompass the earth as a unified system. NASA will gather data, which will focus on long-term climate variations, changes in land cover and yearly prediction of the climate." Kennel said many partnerships with private sector and academic researchers are providing quite an edge to the program.

But, according to a study by the GAO, "Earth Observing System: Cost and Research Issues," the basic scientific community for EOS is relatively small, compared with other NASA missions.

"It is uncertain whether NASA can successfully expand it within future budget constraints," said Brad Hathaway, associate director at GAO. "If NASA is not successful, there may be a growing imbalance between the number of funded investigations and the magnitude of the potential research opportunities created by data from the EOS instruments."

What's more, the EOS and MPE program requires a proper "balance" of space systems, researchers and information systems. "It is not clear that NASA will achieve this balance because [of] the science community funded to do basic research under EOS," said Hathaway.

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