Hurricane Dean's march toward the Gulf Coast couldn't have provided a more ironic backdrop for Space Shuttle Endeavour's early touchdown Tuesday afternoon. Endeavour, originally scheduled to return to Earth today, landed in Florida a day early in anticipation of Dean's possible landfall over Houston, where NASA's Johnson Space Center handles the orbiter's reentry into the atmosphere. In the event of a Houston landfall, NASA would have had to close the space center for the storm's duration.


FOR THE RECORD:
The original version of this article incorrectly laid responsibility for replacing the QuikSCAT satellite on NASA. The National Oceaning and Atmospheric Administration, which is under the U.S. Department of Commerce, operates QuikSCAT and is responsible for replacing the satellite.


Neither NASA nor anyone else could have so thoroughly observed Dean and altered the shuttle's flight plan without the help of QuikSCAT, a low-Earth-orbit satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that observes wind speed and direction over the planet's oceans. But thanks to the Bush administration's focus on manned spaceflight — including the costly maintenance required to launch aging shuttles like Endeavour into space just a few times a year, and the even more science-fictional development of a program to put humans back on the moon more than a decade from now — the future of the network of aging weather satellites that monitor weather patterns such as hurricanes is in serious jeopardy.

Launched in 1999, QuikSCAT was supposed to orbit for no more than five years. Currently, it's limping around the Earth on dying hardware and outdated technology. Earlier this year, Bill Proenza, head of the National Hurricane Center, started publicly warning of a 16% decrease in accurate hurricane forecasts should we lose the satellite without a replacement.

You'd think that in this era of great uncertainty about the world's climate and with much of New Orleans still razed thanks to Hurricane Katrina, a replacement would be coming soon. After all, just two years ago, the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season saw a record 27 named storms, more than double the previous worst of 12 hurricanes in 1969.

Think again. A QuikSCAT replacement won't be ready until 2016. Another climate satellite, the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, which will provide accurate measurements of rain and snow amounts worldwide, has been delayed until at least 2012.

And those programs are the lucky ones. The Deep Space Climate Observatory — which would have continuously monitored the amount of energy the Earth absorbs and which was ready to launch less than four years after NASA kicked off the program in 1998 — was unceremoniously nixed last year after repeated delays by the moon-crazed Bush administration.

Are such delayed climate programs outrageously expensive? Compared to manned spaceflight, they're bargains. Deep Space cost $100 million; a QuikSCAT replacement, about $400 million. By contrast, a single shuttle mission lasting a few weeks sets NASA back at least $400 million. NASA will eventually spend more than $100 billion (yes, billion) to boldly go by 2018 where we've already gone — the geologically dead, inhospitable moon. With NASA surviving on budgets of slightly less than $17 billion each of the last two years, and Congress historically stingy with its space exploration purse strings despite occasional grandstanding to the contrary, the space agency can surely depend on empty promises and lean budgets well into the future.

Which, of course, makes the space agency's priorities all the more important. Thankfully, NASA will retire its shuttle fleet by 2010. Still, the fleet's limited flight schedule and the useless International Space Station eat up more than one-third of the space agency's total $16.8-billion budget for the current fiscal year. Earth science (you know, the study of the place where we actually, um, live, using satellites and the like), by contrast, gets just $1.4 billion — and NASA is, appallingly, planning to spend less by 2012.

It's easy to be mesmerized by the promise of deep-space exploration by astronauts in otherworldly space suits. After all, the "Star Trek" franchise didn't hook its followers with tales of white-coat scientists crunching numbers over slide rules. But NASA's and the Bush administration's idealism is seriously endangering the world's ability to track its own changing and more dangerous climate. Indeed, one of the most popular complaints about space exploration is that it wastes billions of dollars that could be better spent on problems here. With global warming an increasing threat, NASA has a chance to prove what it has long asserted — that a space program provides practical benefits to Earth-bound humanoids.

Paul Thornton is a researcher for The Times' editorial page. Send us your thoughts at opinionla@latimes.com.