President Barack Obama’s administration released its first national strategy for civil Earth observations on 19 April. The report comes six years after the US National Research Council (NRC) warned that inadequate funding and mismanagement had put ‘at great risk’ the United States’ ability to monitor Earth from space. The strategy does little to reassure.

The 60-page document, written by a federal task force, lays out a process to determine the types of observations that deserve government support. But it does not provide what is most urgently needed: clear and specific guidance from the White House on what the government considers to be the most important Earth-science satellite missions — or when they should be launched.

That type of plan, long overdue, grows more important as the fiscal crisis deepens and the demand for such observations rises (see page 13). Meanwhile, the country’s ageing collection of Earth-observing satellites continues its long decline. The number of US probes is likely to dwindle from 23 to just 6 by 2020, threatening to degrade scientists’ ability to track climate change, forecast weather and monitor natural disasters.

Obama is one of many to blame for the brewing crisis. The lack of leadership at the White House is matched by the intransigence of Congress, which set in motion the across-the-board sequestration spending cuts that took effect on 1 March, slashing about 5% from the budgets of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other key science agencies.

Lawmakers also approved steep cuts to NASA’s Earth-science budget beginning in 2002, as then-President George W. Bush foolishly directed the space agency to focus instead on manned missions to the Moon and Mars. Obama has pushed Congress to reverse that decline, but the programme’s budget — US$1.8 billion this year — still falls well below the $2 billion-per-year target that the NRC says is necessary to launch 17 ‘high-priority’ missions by 2020. That makes a blunt discussion about what level of future spending is reasonable and achievable all the more urgent.

The situation is little better in Europe. Member states approved a budget last year that gives the European Space Agency about 80% of what it is seeking to develop research satellites over the next five years. Scientists are worried that the shortfall could delay the planned launch of a climate-change mission, called Earth Explorer 8, in 2018.

The long-term forecast for US Earth observations remains grim.

The US government has also been forced to cope with plain bad luck. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, a much-anticipated satellite designed to track the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, crashed shortly after launch in 2009. Two years later, a similar failure claimed Glory, a mission to monitor Earth’s energy balance, before it could reach orbit. The two incidents cost NASA more than $700 million — not including the $470 million or so the space agency is spending to launch a copy of the observatory in 2014.

To its credit, the Obama administration has made some progress to improve the nation’s eyes in the sky. NASA successfully launched the polar-orbiting climate and weather satellite Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership in October 2011 and the ocean-salinity mission Aquarius in June of that year. Last month, Landsat-8 reached orbit, ensuring that the world’s longest-running global-change data set will continue.

Yet the long-term forecast for US Earth observations remains grim. The US government plans to launch just six satellites between 2014 and 2020, including only two of the four missions that the NRC panels deemed the most important. The other two — designed to measure long-term changes in solar radiation, ice-sheet velocities and terrestrial biomass — have been shelved indefinitely by the White House.

Researchers who warned for years of this slow-moving disaster are now left to watch it unfold. And it comes at a time when concern is growing about the pace of climate change and the pressure that the world’s burgeoning population is placing on limited natural resources.

Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, says that the administration will release a detailed national plan for Earth-observing missions as a supplement to the White House budget request delivered to Congress on 10 April. It cannot come soon enough. Progress depends on the United States making hard decisions about what Earth observations it needs and how best to provide them. For scientists, and society, the dilemma is clear: we cannot manage what we cannot measure.