NASA has cut spending on Earth science to the point where the network of satellites that observe the planet "is at risk of collapse," a National Research Council panel said yesterday.
The group called the trend "alarming" and said it threatens advances in understanding the changing nature of the planet.
In a document released yesterday, the 18-member panel urged NASA to revive and launch some missions that have been canceled, delayed or scaled back as the space agency shifts priorities to fulfill President Bush's "vision" for sending astronauts to the moon and Mars.
"It's the only planet we have, and we need to know what's going on," said Richard A. Anthes, co-chairman of the committee and president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. "It even gets down to the sustainability of human life."
Although they don't receive the publicity of outer space missions, NASA's Orbiting Earth science missions have helped unravel the mystery of the "ozone hole" over Antarctica and tracked changes in the polar icecaps, glaciers, greenhouse gases, ocean currents and air pollution.
Researchers say they have made possible advances in weather forecasting, climate prediction, agricultural forecasts and disaster management.
Among the Maryland institutions with a stake in the issue is the Goddard Space Flight Center, a key NASA center for Earth science research. Under its Joint Center for Earth Systems technology, Goddard shares teaching and research opportunities with the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
In yesterday's report, the committee said an aggressive program to discover and apply new understandings of Earth's weather and climate systems "will increasingly distinguish those nations that achieve and sustain prosperity and security from those that do not."
"The committee strongly believes that NASA must retain Earth science as a central priority," the panel said.
The National Research Council, which convened the panel, is an arm of the National Academies of Science, a nonprofit agency that advises the government on scientific and medical issues.
NASA spokeswoman Dolores Beasley said yesterday that the agency is reviewing the group's recommendations.
"NASA is aware that there is concern over the current national strategy for Earth science," she said. "We plan to redouble our efforts to communicate with the [scientific] community all the elements of our strategy to achieve the transition from a NASA-centric Earth science program to a national program."
She said that might eventually include moving some Earth science programs from NASA to other agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - a shift that critics call difficult and costly.
The Bush administration has proposed spending about $1.37 billion on NASA's Earth science research in fiscal 2006. That's a cut of about $180 million, or 12 percent, from the fiscal 2004 request.
In Washington this morning, the House Committee on Science, chaired by Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, was scheduled to hold a hearing to examine the state of Earth science at NASA.
"This is a lean time," said Sean C. Solomon, director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who is scheduled to testify.
But the slowdown in Earth-science missions began well before Bush launched his initiative to send astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars, he said.
Although missions Solomon has helped to propose for NASA - including radar satellites that could warn of volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides or floods - have not yet been approved, he is not as alarmed as the NRC committee.
"I have no evidence NASA is contemplating getting out of the Earth science business," he said. "We're not going to move off this planet for many generations. We need to understand our home."
The panel concluded that Earth science cutbacks "appear to be largely the result of new obligations to support new manned flight programs." But Anthes said he was personally reluctant to go that far.
"I don't think we can blame any one thing, one person or group of people," he said. "The scientific community is partly to blame. Overall, it's a lack of leadership, and not just NASA leadership."
One of the panel's most urgent concerns is the future of NASA's Earth Observing System (EOS), which began with three satellites. Named Aqua, Terra and Aura, they will begin to reach the end of their five-year service lifetimes this year.
Others were to have followed, Anthes said, but "you look beyond EOS and there's nothing there. It's clear we're going to have a gap in new Earth Observations for the next decade."
NASA has canceled, delayed or diminished at least six planned missions, the panel said, identifying two that need to be restarted "immediately." They are:
The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission. An international project to provide more frequent and accurate measurements of precipitation, considered important to international water security issues.
Geostationary Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer (GIFTS). Designed to measure temperature and water vapor, it is expected to provide more rapid detection of atmospheric changes that signal destructive weather events.
Three other canceled climate- and weather-related science missions should be "urgently" reconsidered, members said.