March 05, 2006
George Bush Doesn't Care About Earth-People

There are a lot of important headlines in today's H-Chron, including the story about the Pat Tillman investigation and the story which sort of suggests Tom DeLay might lose. But here's one story that you probably won't see blogged anywhere else:

Budget cuts and poor management may be jeopardizing the future of our eyes in orbit — America's fleet of environmental satellites, vital tools for forecasting hurricanes, protecting water supplies and predicting global warming.

"The system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse," said Richard A. Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. "Every year that goes by without the system being addressed is a problem."

Anthes chairs a National Academy of Sciences committee that advises the federal government on developing and operating environmental satellites. In a report issued last year, the committee warned that "the vitality of Earth science and application programs has been placed at substantial risk by a rapidly shrinking budget."


Scientists warn that the consequences of neglecting Earth-observing satellites could have more than academic consequences. It is possible that when a big volcano starts rumbling in the Pacific Northwest, a swarm of tornadoes sweeps through Oklahoma or a massive hurricane bears down on New Orleans, the people in harm's way — and those responsible for their safety — will have a lot less information than they'd like about the impending threat.

Included among the cuts are projects that directly impact hurricane forecasting, including a replacement for a satellite which estimates the intensity of rainfall within a developing storm, and replacements for the NOAA polar-orbiting satellites, which provide a much closer and much more detailed view of storms than their counterparts in geostationary orbit.

Why are these cuts being made? It's pretty clear when you look at the numbers - the funding is being crowded out by the President's Vision for Space for Exploration and the costs of the crippled shuttle fleet:

NASA officials say that tight budgets tie their hands, forcing them to cut all but the most vital programs. The agency's proposed 2007 budget request contains $2.2 billion for satellites that observe the Earth and sun, compared to $6.2 billion for operating the space shuttle and International Space Station and $4 billion for developing future missions to the moon and Mars.

"We simply cannot afford all of the missions that our scientific constituencies would like us to sponsor," NASA administrator Michael Griffin told members of Congress when he testified before the House Science Committee Feb. 16.

Griffin is faced with the difficult task of balancing the space agency's science and aeronautics programs against the cost of operating the space station and shuttle, while simultaneously planning the future of human space flight.

"I truly wish that it could be otherwise, but there is only so much money," Griffin said in his congressional testimony. "We must set priorities."

While I'm a fan of manned spaceflight, but quite frankly, the return-on-investment for improved earth observation tends to be large, and it tends to be immediate. Assuming one can not have his cake and eat it to, I question whether NASA is setting the right priorities.

In other Katrina news, Ray Nagin's been in town looking for votes. Not a normal practice for mayors to go out-of-state to campaign.

Posted by Jim Dallas on March 05, 2006 to Hurricane Katrina | TrackBack

Thanks for bringing this to the attention of people (and thanks to the Houston Chronicle also of course).

I've been writing about this topic repeatedly for a year or so now without much company.

Posted by: P.M.Bryant on March 5, 2006 6:22 PM

As a subheader from the Chron piece:

Nagin gets warm greeting from Houston black leaders, questions from evacuees

Well sure, you expect the NAACP to rally around one of their chosen ones.

That the displaced NO residents, probably 80% of more of whom are black, are less than warmly receiving "Chocolate City" Ray is very telling.

Is the NAACP really in touch with the average black New Orleanian? Doubt it. Nothing new there, though. Their allegiance is to politics, not race.

Posted by: Tim on March 5, 2006 8:34 PM

Tim, although Ray Nagin is a Democrat, he's a pro-business conservative, so much so that he was nicknamed "Ray Reagan" when he first ran for mayor.

Many Katrina victims see his conservative outlook as contributing to New Orleans' lack of preparedness when the storm struck. That's why they have been criticizing him; not, as you seem to imagine, because they're conservative and he's a "limousine liberal!"

Nor do they fall into the false dichotomy of believing that because Nagin was partially to blame, Bush is off the hook, or vice versa. The Katrina FUBAR was big enough that there's plenty of valid criticism to go around.

And by the way, the NAACP only organized the meeting; they didn't "rally around one of their chosen ones" as you suggest.

Posted by: Mathwiz on March 7, 2006 2:28 PM

Almost forgot what I signed in to comment about!

I'm a space exploration booster, and I'd probably support Bush's "vision for space exploration" if it weren't for the niggling detail that I don't trust him!

At any rate, the problem NASA is having today is reminiscent (sp?) of their problems under Nixon. In an era of tight budgets, caused in part by unnecessary wars, NASA's piece of the pie isn't going to be very big, so it's probably not a good time for an expensive new human spaceflight program.

One might reasonably question the need for a human spaceflight program, even if our fiscal house were in good order; but the "crowding out" effect is a consequence of our overall budget problems and the GOP's general antipathy toward environmental science. It's not a necessary consequence of human spaceflight per se.

Posted by: Mathwiz on March 7, 2006 2:39 PM

A very good source of information about Hurricanes and other natural disasters goes online today...


JAMES LEE WITT, National Co-Chair
Former Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency
Chief Executive Officer, International Code Council

ADMIRAL JAMES M. LOY, National Co-Chair
Former Deputy Secretary, Department of Homeland Security
Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired)

Their mission is to raise awareness, educate the public and policymakers, and offer solutions that will better prepare and protect America from major catastrophe in a sensible, cost-effective fashion.

We will need it.

Do you think we could make non-science Republicans take notice of global warming if we named hurricanes after them.

Posted by: Support Science to Reverse Global Warming, if still possible on March 7, 2006 11:07 PM