NOAA To Respond to Satellite Task Group Report

NOAA To Respond to Satellite Task Group Report

NOAA is set to respond to last year’s report on its satellite programs by the Satellite Task Force of the NOAA Science Advisory Board (SAB) at an SAB meeting November 19. The SAB Satellite Task Force (SATTF) report was one of three issued last year that critiqued NOAA’s management of its weather satellite programs.

draft of the SATTF report was released for public comment last fall and the final report issued in December.  Among its eight key recommendations were that NOAA should advocate for a stable funding and management environment for the satellite programs within NOAA and conduct an analysis of five alternative architectures for the future of U.S. civil weather satellite systems.

One of the other reports last year was from an Independent Review Team (IRT) headed by Tom Young, a veteran retired industry executive often called upon to lead reviews of government space programs that go awry. His report last year called oversight of NOAA’s satellite programs by NOAA and its parent, the Department of Commerce, “dysfunctional.”   Mary Kicza, NOAA Assistant Administrator for the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), told the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space (CESAS) on Tuesday that the IRT also will report out this month with its assessment of NOAA’s response to that report.  

NOAA is responsible for the nation’s two civil weather satellite systems, one of which is in polar orbit and the other in geostationary orbit.   NOAA is trying to dispel an image of poor management of those programs, especially its role in the failed tri-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program.   Criticism also has been levied at its management of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) that replaced NOAA’s portion of NPOESS.

The life cycle cost estimate for JPSS started at $11.9 billion for four satellites — two JPSS satellites plus two free-flyers to accommodate instruments that were planned for NPOESS but cannot fit on the smaller JPSS spacecraft.   The estimate then rose to $12.9 billion — NOAA said because it added four more years of operations — triggering congressional alarm.  In the FY2014 budget request, NOAA lowered the estimate to $11.3 billion by discontinuing plans for one of the free-flyers, moving the remaining one to a separate line item in the budget, and transferring responsibility for several “climate” (as compared to “weather”) sensors to NASA.  (NASA earth science division director told the NRC CESAS meeting that NASA was given a one-year increase of $40 million to pay for those climate sensors, while NOAA estimated their cost in the “high $200 to low $300 millions.”)

At the NRC CESAS meeting, Kicza portrayed both JPSS and GOES-R as in good shape today at least in part because Congress appears finally to understand the need for these satellites.  The Continuing Resolution (CR) under which the government is currently operating directs NOAA to spend its funds so as to ensure the launch dates for the first JPSS and GOES-R do not slip.  The downside is that the agency was not given more money, so funds to keep those programs on track will have to come from somewhere else, such as NOAA’s other satellite programs, DSCOVR and Jason-3.

Still, Kicza said NOAA is “thankful” for the “clear recognition” for the need for weather satellites and the “tough love” from external reviewers — like SATTF and IRC.

The five architectures the SATTF asked NOAA to evaluate are:

  • Continue JPSS and GOES-R architecture,
  • Pursue new multi-sensor satellites,
  • Establish a hybrid of current polar and geostationary satellites,
  • Investigate a federated architecture with defined missions for individual partners, and
  • Develop a new distributed architecture

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