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NRC Warns Landsat-Type Data Not Sustainable Under Current Practices

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Aug-2013
Updated: 08-Aug-2013 04:31 PM

The National Research Council (NRC) today issued its much-anticipated report on how to ensure continuity of Landsat-type land imaging data.   The bottom line is that a sustained program is not viable under current mission development and management practices.  Instead, the NRC calls for a "systematic and deliberate program" instead of the "historical pattern of chaotic programmatic support and ad hoc design and implementation of spacecraft and sensors" that has characterized the Landsat program to date.

The NRC Committee on Implementation of a Sustained Land Imaging Program, chaired by Jeff Dozier of UC-Santa Barbara, was asked by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to assess the needs and opportunities to develop a space-based operational land imaging capability.  NASA launched the first Landsat (then called ERTS) in 1972, but the program experienced a tumultuous programmatic history beginning in the late 1970s.   Most recently, NASA has been responsible for designing, building and launching Landsat satellites while USGS operates them and distributes and archives the data.  Landsat 8 was launched in February 2013 and NASA turned responsibility for it over to USGS in May.

The NRC committee's deliberations took place against a backdrop of fluid decision-making in the Administration and Congress as to agency roles and responsibilities for ensuring the availability of Landsat-type data for the long term.  Thanks to one of the satellites, Landsat 5, operating for more than 20 years past its design lifetime, the United States has a 40-year data set of satellite-based medium-resolution global land imagery.   The data are used for everything from land use planning to environmental monitoring to agricultural forecasting to Google Earth.  Users want to ensure that the collection of comparable satellite data continues uninterrupted.

In its FY2012 budget request, the Obama Administration proposed transferring program responsibility entirely to USGS, which then would contract with NASA to acquire the satellites just as NOAA acquires its weather satellites through NASA.   USGS wanted to begin planning for Landsat 9 and 10 and sought the NRC's advice.

USGS is part of the Department of the Interior, and the Obama proposal failed to win over the Interior appropriations subcommittees, however.   They worried that other USGS programs would suffer because of the high cost of satellites and denied the request.   In its FY2014 budget request, released in April 2013, the Obama Administration changed course and decided to keep agency responsibilities as they are.   NASA Earth Science Division Director Mike Freilich since has made clear that he intends to create a multi-decadal "sustained and sustainable" land imaging program.  NASA and USGS are working together to assess options that may or may not involve launching another dedicated Landsat satellite.

The NRC committee chose not to make recommendations on agency roles and responsibilities "which in any event are properly in the purview of the executive and congressional branches of government."  Instead, it focused on broader issues.  Chief among them are that the government "should establish a Sustained and Enhanced Land Imaging Program with persistent funding" and that a sustained program "will not be viable under the current mission development and management practices."  Indeed, despite the successful launch of Landsat 8 just six months ago, the committee stressed that it has only a 5 year design life and no money has been appropriated yet to build a replacement capability:  "it is clear that the continuation of the Landsat program is once again in jeopardy." 

The statement has added significance in light of the deep cuts to NASA's FY2014 Earth science budget request recommended by the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee and the House Appropriations Committee in their versions of NASA's new authorization (H.R. 2687) and appropriations (H.R. 2787) bills.  The authorization bill would cut Earth science funding by about 30 percent; the appropriations bill would cut it by about 10 percent.   House SS&T Space Subcommittee chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) said the action "prevents other agencies from using NASA as a piggy bank for projects they can't afford, or can't justify," an apparent reference to Landsat and two NOAA programs that also were moved into NASA's FY2014 budget request.

Pointedly remarking that "the continuity of Landsat imagery has never been ensured through the development of a sustained government program" and the 40-year continuous data record "owes more to the remarkable survival of Landsat 5 ... than to careful planning," the NRC committee outlines the key elements needed for what it calls SELIP -- a Sustained and Enhanced Land Imaging Program.

Among the recommended steps is using block buys and fixed price contracting as the acquisition approach, collaborating with commercial and international partners, and streamlining the process for designing, building and launching satellites and sensors.

in short, the report  calls for a "systematic and deliberate program with the goal of continuing to collect vital data within lower, well-defined, manageable budgets" to "replace the historical pattern of chaotic programmatic support and ad hoc design and implementation of spacecraft and sensors in the Landsat series."


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