House Appropriators Set to Cut NASA Earth Science, NOAA Weather Sat Follow On – UPDATE

House Appropriators Set to Cut NASA Earth Science, NOAA Weather Sat Follow On – UPDATE

UPDATE, May 20, 2015, 2:45 pm ET:  The committee approved the bill today on a voice vote without adopting any amendments related to NASA or to NOAA satellite activities.

ORIGINAL STORY, May 20, 2015, 4:30 am ET.  The House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill today.  In the process, it plans to cut NASA’s earth science program by 13 percent and zero NOAA’s proposal for the next set of its polar weather satellites.  The future of NOAA weather satellites is of great interest to Congress.  Also today, the Senate Commerce Committee will mark up a bill that could significantly change how NOAA acquires future satellites.  The House passed a related bill yesterday.  In addition, a House subcommittee will hold a hearing today on commercial weather data.

For NASA, the draft House FY2016 CJS appropriations bill recommends the same total as requested by President Obama — $18.529 billion — but it is apportioned quite differently among NASA’s activities.  Funding increases above the request for planetary science, astrophysics, aeronautics, exploration and education are paid for primarily by earth science, space technology, and NASA’s internal operations such as safety, security and mission assurance.   A fact sheet provides more information.

The cut to earth science compared to the request is one of the more dramatic changes.  The committee recommends $1.689 billion, $258 million (about 13 percent) less than the $1.947 billion request.  It is $83 million less than the current funding level of $1.772 billion, and much of the requested increase for FY2016 is due to the Obama Administration’s decision to transfer some of NOAA’s satellite activities to NASA and Congress’s earlier decision not to allow the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to assume responsibility for future Landsat satellites, leaving that in NASA’s job jar as well.  (USGS only operates the Landsat satellites after they are in orbit.  NASA pays for development and launch.)

The recommended funding in the appropriations bill is actually better than what was approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in its 2016-2017 NASA authorization bill last month, which recommended as much as a 38 percent reduction compared to the request under its “constrained” funding scenario.  Coupled with statements by the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that authorizes NASA activities, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), at a March hearing, earth science advocates have known they have their work cut out for them in convincing a Republican-led Congress to fully fund those activities.  

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has been strongly defending the earth science program and explaining the relevance of that data to U.S. taxpayers and the global community at large (including victims of the earthquakes in Nepal) in congressional testimony and speeches.  Somewhat surprisingly, though, in a blog post about the CJS bill yesterday, Bolden waits until the sixth paragraph (of eight) to make the arguments in favor of earth science.  Most of the post is about cuts to Space Technology (a $100 million reduction from the $725 million request) and commercial crew (a $244 million reduction from the $1.244 billion request) that he sees as imperiling the Journey to Mars, even though the committee proposes a substantial increase ($1.850 billion compared to the $1.357 billion request) for development of the Space Launch System (SLS) also needed to send humans to Mars.

Similarly, a letter from White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Shaun Donovan to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) and ranking member Nita Lowey (D-NY) about the CJS bill references the cuts to earth science as only one of many concerns about the bill (on page 3 of the 4-page letter).

The appropriations committee also plans to eliminate NOAA’s proposed Polar Follow On (PFO) program for the next set of polar-orbiting weather satellites.  The committee fully funds the request for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), as well as the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series, but does not even mention the $380 million request for PFO.   It is absent from the text of the report and the table summarizing funding for that part of NOAA.  A fact sheet provides more information on NOAA’s FY2016 budget request and PFO, through which NOAA would acquire the next two JPSS satellites (JPSS-3 and -4).

Donovan’s letter calls that cut “shortsighted” and warns that it “heightens the risk” of a gap in weather satellite coverage in the future and “will ultimately cost taxpayers more.”

Congress has an intense interest in the future of NOAA’s weather satellite programs and both the House and Senate committees that oversee those programs are pushing NOAA to use more data from commercial satellites.   Yesterday the House passed the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) by voice vote that includes a pilot program to encourage companies to launch instruments into space that can provide data for weather forecast numerical models.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) said during committee markup of the bill that he hopes to change the “business model” for acquiring new weather satellites.  Instead of “huge, monolithic” satellites like JPSS and GOES-R, he wants many, smaller satellites provided by commercial companies.  He believes that will create a more resilient system.  The bill has strong bipartisan support.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is scheduled to markup a related bill today (at exactly the same time as the House Appropriations CJS markup).  S. 1331, which also has bipartisan support, sets stiff requirements for NOAA’s procurement of future satellites.

Also today, the House, Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Environment Subcommittee will hold a hearing on commercial weather data, with witnesses including Scott Pace of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, Bill Gail of the Global Weather Corporation, Tom Bogdan of UCAR, Nicole Robinson of the Hosted Payload Alliance, and Scott Sternberg of Vaisala, Inc.

The hearing is at 10:00 am ET in 2318 Rayburn.  The House Appropriations Committee markup of the CJS bill is at 10:30 am ET in 2359 Rayburn.  The Senate Commerce Committee markup is at 10:30 am ET in 253 Russell.  Most committee hearings and markups are webcast on the respective committee’s website.

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