Another NASA Budget Blow

This time the Earth Observing Systems takes a $750 million hit

NASA is being forced to pare down its Earth Observing System for the third time since it was conceived in 1990 -- this time by $750,000 million.

Last year Congress capped the EOS program at $8 billion through 2000, which is less than half of the $17 billion that NASA had originally planned. The space agency's officials, scientists and industry partners have spent the last three months trying to figure out how to slash the additional millions from the project.

However critics of the Earth Observing System say the government should keep cutting. Peter Castruccio, president of Ecosystems International Inc. in Millersville, Md., said that he and many other scientists who are not paid by NASA agree that the EOS program is worthless. "We should analyze the data we have from ground-based sensors before we make new work," he said.

But is creating work what NASA had in mind? Castruccio charges that the EOS program, much like the Space Station, is a jobs program.

John Pandelides, an EOS deputy program manager, argues that the scientific information EOS satellites will gather is crucial to understanding the Earth's environment and global climate change: "We'll collect good environmental data that we can use to determine policy."

At first NASA considered scrubbing some of the EOS missions, said Pandelides: "But then we realized that taxpayer money would be going towards doing nothing." So instead, NASA decided to reduce some of the requirements and spread out launch dates to reduce costs, he said.

The EOS Data and Information System, which will serve as the connecting link between the observations made from space and the scientists who will use the data in their research, was slapped with a significant reduction. Overall, the EOSDIS budget will be reduced by $142 million between now and the year 2000, said EOSDIS program manager John Dalton.

All the details have not been worked out yet, but Seabrook, Md.-based Hughes Information System's contract is now down to the "bare bones," said Tony Calio, president of Hughes Applied Information Systems. But, he said, "It's still intact" and the project's fundamental timetable has not changed. The first satellite, AM-1, is slated for a June 1998 launch.

Previous estimates have valued the Hughes contract at $685 million for the next 10 years. Calio would not say what the contract is worth today, but said the changes come in the arrangement of what will be done and when, not in contract value.

Hughes officials worked with NASA's managers and scientists to decide where the EOSDIS budget should be cut. "We tried to minimize the system's cost, and at the same time minimize the impact on the scientific information," said Dalton.

One significant change will come in the operation of the nine data archive centers, or DACs. Instead of having people run each of the centers 24 hours a day, many of the DACs will be run automatically during off hours. For example, technicians will run some centers for eight hours, five days a week, and the rest of the time they will be controlled automatically. Others will be run manually one shift, seven days a week. Another change is a reduction in the capacity of information EOSDIS will be able to process when it begins operating. This will result in less data product, data generation and data storage capacity, said Dalton.

A third change will affect when scientific information is made available. A previous requirement had stipulated that data be produced no more than 24 hours after its capture. "Having that as a requirement, drives you to make that system more complex," said Dalton, like needing back-up communications capability. Instead, now only some of the scientific data will be available the next day.

The contract that will provide ground services for data capture, processing, distribution and storage of raw information sent by future EOS satellites has also been nicked by the recent budget ax.

In December, when NASA selected TRW Inc. of Redondo Beach, Calif., to build the EOS Data and Operations System for the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., it was estimated to be worth $172.7 million.

But when the contract was awarded a few weeks ago, it was for $50 million less, a TRW spokesman said. Another EOSDIS component will link socioeconomic data -- like health, population, and land use data -- to the Earth observing images that will come from a series of 31 satellites. This center is not part of the Hughes contract, and is federally funded as a separate budget item. For fiscal 1994, its budget is $5 million, and it is set to receive $6 million a year for the next four years.

The rest of the $750 million reductions will come from delaying certain elements of the program, launching satellites from a cheaper vehicle and seeking greater international cooperation.

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