NOAA’s Polar Follow On Gets Reprieve from Senate Appropriators

NOAA’s Polar Follow On Gets Reprieve from Senate Appropriators

NOAA’s Polar Follow On (PFO) program finally got some good news.  The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $419 million for PFO in its markup of the FY2018 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill last week.  The Trump Administration wants to “re-plan” the program, which funds the second set of JPSS polar-orbiting weather satellites, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, and requested $180 million.

The Trump Administration requested, and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees approved, full funding for JPSS-1 and JPSS-2. Several years ago, NOAA separated the third and fourth satellites into a different line item with a different program name to reduce the cost of what it called the JPSS program.

Following recommendations from an Independent Review Team, NOAA wants to procure the spacecraft and instruments for JPSS-2, -3 and -4 simultaneously to save money and have replacements ready in case of a launch or on-orbit failure.

Budget constraints have changed the picture, however.  The Trump Administration signaled early on that it would cut funding for NOAA’s satellite programs and PFO is one of the targets.   NOAA projected in its FY2017 budget documentation that it would need $586 million in FY2018 to keep PFO on schedule.  In this year’s budget request, NOAA said it would “re-plan” the program and “work to improve the constellation strategy considering all the polar satellite assets to ensure polar weather satellite continuity while seeking cost efficiencies, managing and balancing system technical risks and leveraging partnerships.”

The Senate committee did not agree.  “The Committee strongly rejects the administration’s proposed cut,” the committee stated in its report accompanying the bill (S. Rept. 115-139).   Calling the proposed cut “perplexing” considering the importance of polar-orbiting weather satellites, the committee said it would create a “risk this Committee is unwilling to accept.”

The House Appropriations Committee took a different approach, approving only $50 million for PFO because NOAA has not provided sufficient information on what the re-planned program would look like.  It added that it might reconsider its decision if NOAA is more forthcoming.

NOAA’s space weather follow-on program is another target of proposed cuts by the Trump Administration. The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is the most recent NOAA satellite launched to monitor the Sun for ejections of particles that can impact Earth and cause outages in the electric grid or spacecraft, for example.  In its FY2017 budget, NOAA proposed a two-satellite space weather follow on program, with the first of the two spacecraft ready for launch before the end of DSCOVR’s design lifetime.  The projected request for FY2018 was $53.7 million.

The Trump Administration instead proposed only $500,000.   The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $5 million.  While agreeing on the need for space weather observations, it urged NOAA to look at lower cost satellites similar to NASA’s Explorer program.  The House Appropriations Committee approved $8.545 million.

NOAA also requested $3 million for its commercial weather data pilot program to procure GPS radio occultation data from commercial companies and determine if they are sufficiently accurate, reliable,  timely and verifiable for infusing into NOAA’s weather models. The program was created by Congress in the FY2016 appropriations bill.   The Senate committee provided $2 million.  By contrast, the House Appropriations Committee doubled it to $6 million.

In addition to its polar-orbiting weather satellites, NOAA operates a complementary set of weather satellites in geostationary orbit — the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) series.  NOAA recently launched the first of a set of four next-generation GOES satellites referred to as the GOES-R series.  The Trump Administration requested, and the House and Senate Appropriations Committee approved, full funding for GOES-R.



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