WASHINGTON -- House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) expressed alarm over recent budget cuts and delays in NASA's Earth science program that a recent National Research Council report attributed to the U.S. space agency's shift in focus toward lunar and Mars exploration.

"This report has to be a red flag for all of us," Boehlert said during an April 26 hearing examining how Earth science programs fare in NASA's 2006 budget request. "We need to stop, examine what's happening, and make sure that the fiscal 2006 budget for NASA - whatever its top-level number - includes adequate funding to keep Earth science moving forward for the foreseeable future."

NASA merged its Earth science and space science programs into a single organization, the Science Mission Directorate, in 2004 and no longer maintains separate budgets for the two activities. But according to a House Science Committee analysis of NASA's budget request, of the $5.47 billion included for the Science Mission Directorate, only $1.36 billion would be spent on Earth science activities, a drop of 8 percent below the 2005 level and 12 percent less than the 2004 level. Earth science spending would continue to decline in 2007, NASA projections show, even as overall science funding would grow by $500 million.

The National Research Council report, written by an expert panel and released the day of the hearing, says the budget trend for Earth science already is translating into program delays and cancellations. The report, "Earth Science Applications from Space: Urgent Needs and Opportunities to Serve the Nation," points out that NASA has "canceled, descoped, or delayed at least six planned missions" and has nothing in the pipeline to replace the fleet of Earth Observing System satellites the agency has spent more than a decade putting on orbit.

"At NASA, the vitality of Earth science and application programs has been placed at substantial risk by a rapidly shrinking budget that no longer supports already-approved missions and programs of high scientific and societal relevance," the report states. "Opportunities to discover new knowledge about Earth are diminished as mission after mission is canceled, descoped, or delayed because of budget cutbacks, which appear to be largely the result of new obligations to support flight programs that are part of the Administration's vision for space exploration."

The report was written as part of an ongoing National Research Council effort to set the agenda for space-based Earth observations through 2020. A final report is due in 2006.

Berrien Moore, co-chairman of the panel that wrote the scathing report, told the House Science Committee that NASA's shift in priorities has jeopardized U.S. leadership in Earth observation. He noted that NASA has no major Earth science missions in development besides the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, a proposed international constellation of satellites tentatively slated to start launching around the end of the decade.

"This is the first time I can remember in the long history I've had with NASA seeing that there is essentially an end," Moore said.

Moore also said he was concerned about NASA's plan to rely more heavily in the future on operational satellites operated by other agencies for collecting environmental data important to scientists. The centerpiece of that strategy is the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), a new series of polar orbiting weather satellites to be jointly operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Air Force starting around 2010.

The NPOESS system is expected to take over a number of Earth Observing System measurements as well as host a land-imaging sensor to gather data that for 30 years has been collected by dedicated Landsat satellites. In addition, NASA officials are now eying the NPOESS system as a possible host for a greenhouse gas analyzing instrument that NASA designed for the recently canceled Glory mission.

Rep. Mark Udall (Colo.), ranking Democrat on the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, expressed concern about the overall health of the Earth science program and said he was not convinced that putting science instruments on NPOESS is the answer.

"There may well be good budgetary reasons to consider moving the Landsat sensor onto NPOESS, for instance, but I am concerned that neither the technical impacts of such a move nor its likely cost impacts are well understood at this point," Udall said.

Appearing on behalf of NASA was Alphonso Diaz, the agency's associate administrator for science. Diaz noted that NASA has 16 Earth science missions on orbit and plans to launch eight more between now and 2010.

He said making greater use of operational satellites will help minimize what the government has to spend to fly science instruments.

"We've made major investments over the past 15 to 20 years . and a lot of that investment . has gone into infrastructure -- platforms that hold instruments," Diaz said. "The platforms themselves are very similar, if not identical, to the ones that NOAA flies for operational programs. So the strategy we are on is one that would try to minimize the investment that needs to be made by the government overall on infrastructure to support these instruments."

Diaz said he was sympathetic to the worries of environmental scientists, but added that the changes to NASA's Earth science programs are all for the best.

"I can understand the concern because of the changing strategy that is taking place," Diaz said. "The reason I feel more confident is largely because I believe when we come out of this transition we will be much better positioned to do the work we have been doing in the past than we would [be] otherwise."

If Moore and other scientists at the hearing were not reassured, neither was the committee's chairman.

"You talk about the handoff," Boehlert said. "I'm enough of a track man to know it takes two hands to hand off. One hand is extending to hand off, but there has to be a recipient with a plan and a program and the funding behind the program and we don't see that."