Congress Not Convinced JPSS Need Is Urgent

Congress Not Convinced JPSS Need Is Urgent

Yesterday’s Women in Aerospace conference, Aerospace 2011: The Road Ahead,offered interesting perspectives on why Congress was not willing to increase NOAA’s FY2011 budget to pay for the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). By the end of the day, it was clear that NOAA and the Obama White House have a lot of work to do if they want a different result for FY2012.

The need for weather satellites seems obvious. The value of increasingly reliable weather forecasting has been recounted many times not only in terms of lives saved, but in broader economic terms. Kathy Sullivan, a former astronaut who was recently confirmed as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction for NOAA, reviewed some of that data in a luncheon speech to the conference. NOAA, Europe and the Department of Defense have complementary polar orbiting weather satellites in different orbital planes. Data from all of them are combined to provide the increasingly reliable forecasts available today. On average, Sullivan said, weather forecasts would be 50 percent less accurate without the NOAA satellite data.

NOAA’s satellites are getting older every day and there are no others awaiting launch. When the existing satellites die, there will be no more data. If JPSS is not funded quickly, NOAA asserts there very likely will be a gap of as many as 18 months in weather satellite data in the 2015-2016 time frame. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has issued that warning to Congress in several recent hearings.

Why then would Congress not fund JPSS? Sullivan and colleague Mary Kicza portrayed the problem as a primarily structural issue in how Congress handles funding for these satellites. NOAA is part of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill and Congress must set priorities between weather satellites and the varied other programs under that jurisdiction, including NASA and community police services, for example. Kicza, head of NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), which manages NOAA’s satellite programs, spoke on a panel later in the day. She also noted that appropriators feel they have to focus on today’s problems, not something that will happen in 2015-2016.

The message from both NOAA representatives was that JPSS is a simply a victim of bad timing. In February 2011, the White House decided to dissolve the tri-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program due to repeated cost increases and schedule delays. NPOESS was to merge the historically separate military and civil weather satellite systems. Instead, the White House decided to revert to separate systems and directed NOAA to build JPSS while DOD builds its own system to meet its requirements.

The White House requested $1.1 billion in NOAA’s FY2011 budget for JPSS, but when the dust finally settled on FY2011 appropriations two months ago, Congress maintained NOAA’s polar weather satellite program at its previous level of $382 million.

Tara Rothschild, a staff member of the subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee, agreed that priority setting ultimately is the issue, but provided deeper insight into Congress’s mindset. While asserting that Congress does recognize the need for weather satellites, she revealed that some Members of Congress do not believe NOAA’s contention that there will be a weather satellite data gap. Even NOAA couches its warnings by saying a gap is “very likely” or “almost certain” since the projection is based on statistics on how long these satellites operate, but many satellites work years beyond their design lifetime. Even if there is a gap, Rothschild continued, it will not be until 2015-2016 and on Capitol Hill everyone is focused on today: “it’s about right now,” she stressed.

Rothschild’s message was that the Administration needs to help Congress determine priorities. When Congress asks executive branch agencies what is most important, she said, they usually reply that all of their programs are important. “When everything is important, nothing is important,” she remarked, “We can’t fund it all.”

The possibility of commercial providers stepping into the weather satellite business was broached as an option. Some instruments could fly as hosted payloads on unrelated satellites, for example, or weather satellites could follow the lead of the commercial remote sensing industry with guaranteed government data buys as the cornerstone of their business.

The 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act (P.L. 102-555) prohibits the commercialization of government weather satellites. It does not appear to preclude the government from buying commercial weather satellite data, however.

Meanwhile, NOAA is requesting $1.1 billion for JPSS in FY2012, the same increase Congress just rejected for FY2011. Rothschild said that she had not seen any indication yet from House appropriators as to what they plan to do with the request. With Republicans demanding deep budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, it is clear that NOAA and the White House have their work cut out for them in convincing Congress that JPSS is a priority worthy of such an increase.

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