Looking homeward

January 17, 2007

Mention of the space program calls to mind images of interplanetary adventurers exploring distant orbs. But the most vital work involves satellite cameras focused here on Earth.

These revolving researchers send back information used to predict short-term weather events as well as the long-term impact of environmental changes. Hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, the polar ice caps, ocean and coastal ecosystems, all are being studied in hopes of a better understanding of the forces at play - as well as what can and should be done about them.

Yet even as global climate change heightens the need for such research, the Bush administration has pushed earth science to the back burner, shrinking the budget and canceling new missions as it directs NASA to put a higher priority on manned flights to the moon and Mars. This is a six-year trend the new Democratic-led Congress must quickly reverse.

Half the country's environmental satellites will stop working by 2010, according to a National Academy of Sciences study that warned the orbiting research network is "at risk of collapse."

Mr. Bush's skepticism about global warming and his enthusiasm for the glamour of manned space travel have combined with a federal spending squeeze to minimize space study of issues such as air pollution, land development and seafood harvesting that might yield unwelcome recommendations.

The good news is that Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is well-positioned to return earth science to its appropriate status in the federal budget. As chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Baltimore Democrat can press for greater cooperation between the two agencies that share the earth science mission and give them greater clout in budget negotiations.

The task will be made more difficult by the new emphasis Mr. Bush and the Democratic majority have put on restraining spending in order to balance the budget within five years. Democrats can't simply restore funds to their favorite domestic programs because enormous war costs as well as hefty tax cuts continue to drain the coffers.

Ms. Mikulski can restore common sense to the use of scarce space funds, however. She can put aside the glamour missions and ensure the nation gets a better return on its dollar by financing research that heads off predictable environmental disasters.

Last year set yet another record for high temperatures. The world needs to know as much as possible about what that means.

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