Mission to Planet Earth


NASA's Mission to Planet Earth (MTPE) Enterprise is part of the well-coordinated U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which supports research to provide scientific insight into global environmental issues. These issues include: climate change and greenhouse warming, ozone depletion and ultraviolet radiation, and prediction of significant variations of the seasonal to interannual climate. This research significantly contributes to the larger worldwide effort to study natural and human-induced changes in the Earth's system. Many of the capabilities being developed will be needed indefinitely; today's program is laying the foundation for long-term environment and climate monitoring and prediction. The unique vantage point of space provides information about the Earth's land, atmosphere, ice, oceans, and biota that is otherwise unobtainable. In concert with the global research community, MTPE is developing the understanding needed to support the complex environmental policy decisions that lie ahead.

Of the 18 agencies, departments, and Executive offices of the U.S. Government that participate in USGCRP, NASA has the sole responsibility for space-based Earth observation and the major responsibility for the management of data and information and the understanding of processes. For these responsibilities, NASA spends approximately 70 percent of the USGCRP budget. The FY94 budget for MTPE was $1.6 billion, of which approximately $1.3 billion was for R&D activities. MTPE activities are conducted within NASA at GSFC, JPL, ARC, LaRC, and MSFC (in order of decreasing funding); the map shows the principal roles played by these Centers in the MTPE Enterprise.

Contributions to National Needs

The contributions of NASA's MTPE Enterprise to the national needs follow directly from the contributions of USGCRP. These contributions were probably best expressed by Dr. John Gibbons, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, in his recent testimony before Congress when he said that "our international policy experiences over the past few years have amply demonstrated that U.S. global change interests are inexorably linked to our economic welfare and national security, and domestic and foreign policy considerations, and in many cases through formal international treaties and agreements" ("Our Changing Planet: The FY 1995 U.S. Global Change Research Program," a supplemental report to the President's FY95 budget).

One of the goals of both USGCRP and NASA's MTPE Enterprise Strategic Plan is to understand the Earth as a system. Extremely high-quality science is necessary to meet this goal. Another stated goal of both programs is to contribute to the creation of wise and timely environmental policy. Hence, the MTPE Enterprise meets the fundamental science and environmental protection national needs to a large extent and the economic competitiveness need to a lesser extent.

Thorough searches at each of the Centers involved in the MTPE Enterprise led the Task Force to conclude that, while there is excellent science being pursued within MTPE, there is a lack of definition of scientific milestones and need dates that will provide the national policy process with the necessary information to make decisions in a timely manner.

MTPE is primarily a fundamental science program. By definition science is the search for answers to unknowns. Predicting those answers on some schedule obviously involves some uncertainty. The Task Force found that the science within MTPE is well planned and coordinated through the efforts of both the national and international science communities. Plans are adjusted to work on understanding what become the most important areas as new discoveries are made. Unfortunately, what we are learning makes it obvious that time is of the essence in taking action to stop and/or reverse the harm that is being done to our planet. It is clear that good science, while necessary, is not sufficient; a sense of urgency, goals for that urgency (which could be used to measure progress), and communication to the taxpayer of the value of their investment in NASA to undertake this important program are critical.

It is imperative that NASA continue the generation of a roadmap of science milestones for MTPE with schedules and resources responsive to public need. The relevance of the Enterprise to the public need must also be communicated, both in general and to the public. The Task Force has seen increased attention to this area since the beginning of our activity; it must continue after the asking of hard questions ceases.

Recommendation: NSTC and the Office of Science and Technology Policy should develop an interagency process for establishing priorities, need dates, and supporting rationale for scientific information provided by the MTPE Enterprise to support policy decisions. NASA should use the results of this process to establish program priorities and schedules.


NASA has been performing world-class work in the space sciences since its beginning. The expertise in using spacecraft to carry specialized instruments into orbit or beyond to conduct remote sensing and data gathering that help look beyond the Earth gives NASA the unique capability to conduct world-class work in the scientific research portion of USGCRP. NASA's aircraft and balloon expertise also provides the advantage of being able to make in situ measurements throughout the atmosphere to complete the data sets obtained from space-based observation.

While GSFC is responsible for most of the MTPE programs, ARC, LaRC, MSFC, and JPL also perform work in the MTPE Enterprise. The Centers generally leveraged their work in MTPE research areas from existing capabilities in other research areas-meaning that the incremental cost to obtain these capabilities was relatively small. It is possible to debate whether those original capabilities belong where they are (decisions were sometimes made for other than technical reasons), but given the original capability, NASA has made good use of leveraging that capability into a new area.

In light of the current environment with declining resources for the foreseeable future, it is time to examine the MTPE capabilities and their distribution throughout the United States. Even though it cost relatively little to grow those capabilities in their local Centers, the cost of maintaining them may be prohibitive, particularly in the new budget environment. Downsizing demands consolidation to achieve meaningful economies of scale. Before attempting to make decisions based on cost, it is important to make sure that the capability is truly required. This exercise greatly depends on first developing the roadmap of science milestones to meet national needs, as already described. Each capability must meet a requirement, as opposed to an application that comes from having another capability.

Assuming that the capability is truly required, determine if it is performed better outside of NASA. If it is, then NASA can stop doing it. If not, the final step should be to perform a cost-benefit analysis of the true cost of having that capability distributed as opposed to consolidated at one Center with the other necessary capabilities. Part of this involves an examination of the facilities, people, infrastructure, and so on, involved. This is now unreasonably difficult to do because the financial management system does not provide managers with the information necessary to make this decision. Modifications to the system to meet the manager's needs would be helpful in making these kinds of decisions.

Recommendation: NASA should examine the need for each current research area in the program in light of the integrated science roadmap, and, if the need is not demonstrably critical to USGCRP, the activity should be stopped. If it is necessary, the Agency should determine whether it can be performed better outside of NASA. If it can, it must be stopped inside NASA. If it cannot, the cost-benefit of consolidating it at a major MTPE Center (such as GSFC) should be examined.

One striking observation during the course of the visits was the number of airplanes in the NASA fleet. Almost every Center has aircraft. Many of those aircraft are involved in the MTPE Enterprise. There does not seem to be an overabundance of aircraft capability for MTPE, and the aircraft were generally optimized for specific flight regimes and science questions. The instruments flown on the aircraft are developed and built as a result of peer review selection; the experiments could be from anywhere. It was not unusual for a Center with MTPE aircraft to be flying a few of its instruments on its own aircraft and many on the aircraft of other Centers. For example, only about 15 percent of the instruments flown on the ARC MTPE aircraft belong to ARC researchers; the remainder are from other Centers, academia, and industry.

The issue here is not the number of aircraft, but the costs associated with maintaining a few aircraft in several locations as opposed to maintaining all the aircraft in a central location. In times past, it made sense to have the aircraft located near the researcher so the data could be removed at the end of the flight and quickly provided to the scientist. In today's environment, it is not at all unusual for the data to be downloaded to a ground station during the flight and sent over the Internet to the scientist, giving near-real-time access to the data and providing the opportunity to modify the experiment while the airplane is still flying. In this case, where the airplane is based is immaterial to the researcher.

This issue applies not only to MTPE aircraft, but to all of NASA's aircraft. For example, ARC is currently planning to acquire a 747SP to be used as a replacement for the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. Plans are to base the new aircraft at ARC. Yet, DFRC has seven people who maintain the NASA Shuttle Carrier 747 aircraft. It is possible that the incremental cost would be much less to base the new 747 at DFRC.

Recommendation: Relative costs of a distributed versus consolidated aircraft fleet should be analyzed. A decision should be based on actual cost-benefit trades for the research program of MTPE.

Leadership and Management

The MTPE Enterprise is carried out by five centers (GSFC, ARC, LaRC, MSFC, and JPL). NASA Headquarters is also actively involved in the management and execution of MTPE programs.

The Task Force found confusion relating to implementation responsibilities within the Enterprise. At the major Center for MTPE, we expected that the Center would have a clear definition of the program coordination responsibilities and the roles of each of the other Centers involved in the Enterprise. Instead, the Task Force found it difficult to understand the Enterprise implementation process. For example, it was evident that funding was controlled by both NASA Headquarters and by GSFC. While it was not clear that there was a strategy for when money came from GSFC or when it came from Headquarters, it was clear that having multiple funding routes and having no apparent strategy were a source of confusion about who was in charge.

This situation clearly illustrates the need for NASA to clarify the roles and responsibilities of Headquarters and the Centers. For MTPE, it is suggested that overall responsibility for leadership of the Enterprise remain at Headquarters (objectives, policy, and budget approval). Programs (including the Earth Observation System) within the Enterprise would be assigned by Headquarters to lead Centers. Responsibility for program implementation and execution should reside with the designated lead Center. Supporting Centers would then be responsive to and receive funding from the assigned program management in the designated lead Center. This arrangement is necessary anyway, but it will become especially essential when NASA Headquarters' major downsizing plans come to pass.

Recommendation: The roles of those involved in the Enterprise at Headquarters and at the Centers must be clarified. The authority and responsibility for program implementation must be at the Center level.

Implementation Planning

The MTPE Enterprise is largely a fundamental earth science research program; it also addresses the applications needs of USGCRP. Because MTPE is largely a scientific endeavor, it has major needs for the kinds of scientific information being developed in the Scientific Research Enterprise.

There is a need to have scientists working together who manage research programs that address the planets (including the Earth), the Solar System, the galaxy, and the Universe. Scientists concerned with global environmental change on the Earth should coordinate their efforts with scientists studying the Sun and the heliosphere, planetary atmospheres, planetary magnetospheres, and the ionosphere. The Task Force felt that integrated plans for research in both the Scientific Research and MTPE Enterprises would result in improved science programs and results throughout the two areas. However, combining the two Enterprises does not make sense because of the completely different constituencies and the need for additional emphasis on timely relevance to national needs within MTPE.

Recommendation: There should be integrated implementation plans for research in both the Scientific Research and MTPE Enterprises in NASA.

Increasing Productivity

USGCRP is, in general, a good example of interagency coordination and cooperation. The responsibilities and budgets of participants are coordinated within USGCRP and determined in Agency budget processes. However, it seems that one weak link in this coordination process is the sharing of data between agencies. For example, the DoD participates in USGCRP. Through its Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office (DARO), DoD collects a large amount of data from its fleet of aircraft, which could be of use in NASA's MTPE effort. One potential roadblock to the use of these data is security classification. In this era of declining resources, it is imperative that ways be found to preserve necessary security classifications while getting useful data into the appropriate programs. Another potential roadblock is the "not invented or measured here" syndrome. It is much easier to plan ways to obtain a very consistent data set than to think about how to make good use of existing data; it is also much more expensive.

Additionally, data gathered by aircraft flying to support National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration missions can provide very useful results for MTPE. NASA and the other participants in USGCRP must take the time and effort to examine such possibilities. There is plenty of work to perform in managing, examining, and making sense of the data once they are collected.

Recommendation: Relevant results of the DoD Airborne Reconnaissance Office program should be integrated with MTPE. Appropriate data from other agencies and organizations should be actively sought out and considered.

Effective Collaboration

The Centers involved in the MTPE Enterprise have exhibited a commitment to involving the best talents in the program, regardless of where they work. Peer review selection results in participants from academia and industry. JPL has a beneficial close working relationship with the faculty at Cal Tech. One of the more innovative mechanisms observed was the Global Hydrology and Climate Center at MSFC. Through a cooperative agreement, the Global Hydrology and Climate Center allows civil servants, contractors, and professors to work as true colleagues on the MTPE program. LaRC is in the formative stages of organizing a group of universities to collaborate on MTPE.

The approaches taken thus far to provide effective mechanisms to allow Government/academia/industry collaboration are good. These kinds of activities should be pursued whenever possible.

Recommendation: The NASA Centers should improve collaboration with industry and academia through joint projects and cooperative agreements.

Advanced Technology Development and Infusion

The NASA Strategic Plan contains several strategies to accomplish the purposes of the MTPE Enterprise. One of those strategies is: "Seek or develop advanced technologies that lead to new science investigations or reduce program costs." In spite of this statement, the Task Force found little evidence of advanced technology development for and infusion into MTPE, which should be an ideal candidate for technology development because of the program's long-term nature (15 or more years) and multiple flight opportunities.

It is understandable that it is easy to be satisfied with the status quo because one of the major program goals is to gather consistent data sets over long periods (at least 15 years) to allow observation of change as a function of time. Additionally, program managers are always tempted to use "flight heritage" technology (already developed and flown) to minimize program risk and cost. The current MTPE Enterprise appears to use this rationale along with the fundamental science justification of the program to remain outside the new "faster, better, cheaper" culture within NASA. Technology development and infusion plans are one of the best ways to capitalize on the new culture. Careful planning of requirements and adequate support of R&D can result in advanced capabilities successfully being employed in the MTPE program, thereby improving the timeliness and quality of scientific results or lowering the cost of the program.

Recommendation: Advanced technology must be planned for and infused into the MTPE programs and missions for long-term efficiencies. The plan should include a roadmap with milestones and resources.

Technology Application

The main goals of the MTPE Enterprise are related to long-term fundamental science observations. However, this long-term effort is leading to near-term, practical applications of Earth remote sensing. One example is the capability developed by JPL to measure the movement of land to a very high accuracy using a Global Positioning System; this is useful in detecting fault lines, beach erosion, and so forth. Another example is the infrared imaging of major fires conducted by ARC aircraft. Near-real-time images provided to firefighters allowed them to plan a much more effective approach to battling the blaze, which from the ground is obscured by smoke. There are many more similar examples.

This spinoff of applications from MTPE is impressive and will contribute to the quality of life. An emphasis should be maintained on developing practical applications whenever possible. The benefits of these practical applications must be expressed in clearly understandable terms that identify their value to the public.

Recommendation: NASA should continue efforts to transfer technology from the MTPE Enterprise to practical application. The value of those practical applications should be articulated to the public.

Continue Peer and Other Nonadvocacy Reviews

The MTPE Enterprise is very similar in operation to the Scientific Research Enterprise. In both cases, science drives missions; that science is selected primarily using the peer review process. NASA uses peer review for selection to ensure credibility of the work with the scientific community.

The peer review process has several potential pitfalls. Center scientists do not directly help Headquarters program scientists because of conflict of interest, yet Center scientists have conflicts because they are involved more directly with NASA programs than outsiders. Headquarters program scientists must exercise programmatic control to achieve the best program from the best projects, yet programmatic control can also include the need to select Center scientists to maintain a capability and thus at times not adopt the peer review recommendation. Peer reviewers may at times not have the complete picture (programmatic, financial) to make the best recommendations. The process can have a tendency to exclude innovative ideas and new participants. Finally, the entire process requires significant time, which did not have a major impact on large, long-term programs; it is a factor in the new "faster, better, cheaper" culture.

When the above potential pitfalls are carefully considered, the peer review process can properly serve the NASA future science programs, provided the following recommendation is adopted.

Recommendation: The peer review process needs to be streamlined to reduce cycle time and be compatible with the new NASA "faster, better, cheaper" culture.

Benchmark Performance

Facilities and physical capabilities cannot be world class by themselves. Competent, qualified people are required. NASA has a large group of extremely good people performing world-class work throughout the MTPE Enterprise. Generally, they understand the contribution(s) of their work to the Enterprise and seem enthusiastic and motivated. All were struggling with ways to quantify their performance-some with more success than others. Specifically, the MTPE scientists at LaRC appear to be further along than most in defining meaningful metrics to quantify their results.

Developing metrics to quantify performance of the work is not an easy task, but it is crucial to maintaining high quality and high productivity in an era of declining resources. The effort to develop methodology for quantifying the quality and productivity of NASA's MTPE effort, as measured against program goals, must be continued and increased. A schedule for completion of implementing the performance metrics should be developed. As a start, suggested metrics include: success in achieving the roadmap of science milestones (which is under development) on schedule and budget; the results of external peer review of ongoing programs (perhaps reviewers could be surveyed for quantifiable data, in addition to comments, so progress can be measured); the scientific publication impact index based on publications and citations (the LaRC MTPE group is using this); the number of peer-reviewed publications; the track record in success with proposals; public recognition of progress achieved (such as number of press articles, television spots, and so on); and amount of information spinoff (use of MTPE data for other applications or by people outside NASA). This list is meant to be a suggested starting point, not comprehensive. It is important to remember that metrics quantify an outcome; data are generally not metrics.

Recommendation: NASA should increase efforts to develop a methodology to measure the quality and productivity of its MTPE effort, as measured against program goals. A schedule for completion of implementing the performance metrics should be developed.

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