The nation’s NASA- and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-administered Earth observation program is at risk of collapse, the victim of poor strategic planning, budget shortfalls and cost overruns, according to a National Research Council assessment.

The NRC panel says the effort is largely sustained by the extension of current missions and efforts to find data-gathering alternatives to new satellite systems.

Even with recent notable successes, including the Oct. 28, 2011 launch of NASA’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project spacecraft, known as NPP, the overall effort is losing ground on multiple fronts, according to the panel’s 122-p. report.

“The projected loss of observing capability will have profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards,” cautions Dennis Hartmann, the University of Washington atmospheric scientist who chaired the 21-member report panel. “Our ability to measure and understand changes in the Earth’s climate and life support systems will also degrade.”

The panel forecasts drastic declines in the numbers of NASA/NOAA Earth science assets by 2020. Active satellite missions are projected to drop from just more than 20 to fewer than 10. Key instrumentation in orbit will plummet from just more than 80 to 20.

The May 2 report serves as a midterm check on the NRC’s 2007 “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond,” a 10-year road map for Earth missions formulated by science and engineering experts in the discipline.

The new report faults the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for failing to forge a strategic implementation plan, and Congress for funding lapses. NASA, which is credited with embracing the objectives of the 2007 blueprint, nonetheless fell victim to declining budgets, dual Taurus launch failures that claimed two Earth observation satellites, and rising costs, especially those associated with United Launch Alliance’s decision to discontinue the Delta II medium launcher.

The 2007 blueprint outlined 17 NASA and NOAA Earth science missions for launch by 2020. Of the six slated for liftoff between 2010 and 2013, only two have launch dates, one in 2014, the other in 2015. The remainder are considered too formative for launch date forecasts.

Two of the blueprint missions and part of a third came from NOAA. Each is yet to be implemented because of budget lapses and development cost overruns, the NRC panel found.

Strides in the Earth science program have come largely from the extension of satellite missions, which have fulfilled their primary missions and whose continued operations cannot be assured, the NRC panel notes.

NASA’s NPP, which emerged from its own troubled past, is an exception. The five-year mission, to introduce a range of technically advanced sensors for weather observations as well as climate change measurements, is bridging a gap between NASA’s Earth Observing System and the Joint Polar Satellite System, an NOAA initiative for gathering climate as well as weather data.

Researchers have also looked to airborne campaigns to successfully gather data that would otherwise be collected with satellites, the NRC reports.

Based on the current dilemma, the study panel offers forward-looking observations: the nation’s Earth science initiative is in need of a long-term vision with a fixed and predicable mission sequence; striking a balance between the highest science priorities and a viable mission sequence will offer the greatest challenge; program managers face inevitable trade-offs between science priorities and costs; and new technologies, mission partnerships and alternative data gathering will become more critical.