Gallaudet: NOAA Satellite Programs Growing at “Unsustainable Rate” – UPDATE

Gallaudet: NOAA Satellite Programs Growing at “Unsustainable Rate” – UPDATE

RDML Timothy Gallaudet (Ret.), President Trump’s nominee to be the Deputy Administrator of NOAA, asserts that NOAA’s satellite programs “are growing at an unsustainable rate” and “have been delayed numerous times.”  The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on his nomination on Wednesday.  His statement was in response to a committee questionnaire associated with the hearing. [UPDATE: His confirmation hearing was on September 27, the committee approved it on October 4, and the Senate confirmed him by voice vote on October 5, 2017.  ]

Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet (now retired). Navy photo.

Trump nominated Gallaudet on September 1 to be the next Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, which would also make him Deputy Administrator of NOAA.  The President has not yet nominated anyone to serve as Administrator.  NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce and the NOAA Administrator is also the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. Benjamin Friedman is currently acting in that capacity.

Gallaudet is a 32-year Navy veteran who retired last month as Oceanographer of the Navy, Navigator of the Navy, and Commander of the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.  He has a B.S. from the Naval Academy and a master’s and PhD in oceanography from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

In his answers to the committee’s questionnaire, Gallaudet listed the top three challenges he sees facing NOAA.  He identified the first challenge as implementing the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act that Congress passed earlier this year.

“If confirmed, I would make it my top priority to meet the intent of this law, especially the aspects concerning improvement to severe weather, tornado and hurricane warnings, and satellite data collection program management.  … Finally I will need to work with the NOAA Administrator as well as NESDIS and NWS leadership to focus on the NOAA satellite programs which are growing at an unsustainable rate and that have been delayed numerous times.”

The National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) and the National Weather Service (NWS) are both parts of NOAA.

NOAA has been building new generations of its geostationary (GOES-R series) and polar-orbiting (JPSS) weather satellites. Although they both experienced cost growth and schedule delays in the past, at the moment seem on track and their budgets have passed their peak funding years.  The first GOES-R was successfully launched last November and the first JPSS is scheduled for launch on November 10, 2017.

That is the first of a set of two JPSS satellites.  The big question is the fate of the next set of two.  Four satellites are needed over time, but NOAA separated them into different budget line items because of complaints about the program’s cost.  The move reduced the pricetag for “JPSS” from $12.9 billion to $11.3 billion, but left the other two satellites in limbo.  They are currently called the Polar Follow On (PFO) program.  The Trump Administration proposed cutting PFO sharply in FY2018.  The House wants to cut it even more, while the Senate Appropriations Committee is trying to save it. (See’s fact sheet on NOAA’s FY2018 budget request for satellites.)

Whether Gallaudet was expressing alarm about PFO specifically, or NOAA’s plans for new space weather satellites (also in dispute in the FY2018 budget), or simply a generalized concern may become clearer at the hearing.

He wins support from the head of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).  Anthony Busalacchi praised the nomination in a statement earlier this month, citing Gallaudet’s experience and knowledge about earth system science and what is needed to advance U.S. weather forecasting capabilities.

Correction:  an earlier version of this article identified Dr. Busalacchi as head of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), but he is head of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).  NCAR is managed by UCAR.  Also, an earlier version said the nomination was sent to the Senate on September 2, but it was very late on September 1.

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