NOAA's Sullivan: PFO New Way To Buy Satellites After Wirebrushing From Tom Young Panel

NOAA's Sullivan: PFO New Way To Buy Satellites After Wirebrushing From Tom Young Panel

NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan explained to a House appropriations subcommittee yesterday that its proposal for a new Polar Follow On (PFO) satellite program is the result of advice from an Independent Review Team (IRT) chaired by Tom Young that “really wirebushed us” for procuring satellites ineffectively.  During the same discussion, subcommittee chairman John Culberson suggested that he thinks NOAA should let NASA build its satellites.

NOAA is requesting $380 million in FY2016 to initiate the PFO program, which would begin building instruments for the third and fourth Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4.  That figure includes $10 million for an Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW) microwave sounder.   PFO is a portion of the $2.2 billion request for satellite programs at NOAA, which is part of the Department of Commerce.

Sullivan said Young and Tom Moorman, another member of the IRT, “wirebrushed us really properly, but also thoroughly, over the fact that we were buying these systems in about as dumb a way as you possibly could.”  After doing all the design and engineering and getting the supply chain in place, one satellite is produced.  Then a few years later the government says it needs another one and we “incur all those expenses again.  It’s exactly the wrong way to buy any complex system and certainly satellites.”

The IRT also convinced NOAA that it needs “robustness” in its satellite systems so there is no concern about gaps in coverage in the future as there is now.   She described robustness as a weather satellite system that can tolerate one failure and still support weather forecasting and the missing capability could be replaced in about a year.  Since the greatest risk is launch, at the time one satellite is being launched, ideally its successor should be already built.   “If we don’t start right about now on those next two [JPSS] spacecraft, we will be repeating the prospect of a big gap like we’re looking at now,” she said.

The hearing before the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee on March 18, 2015 was chaired by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX).   Culberson asked Sullivan for her estimate of the chances that there will be gap in coverage before the first JPSS is launched in 2017 and if that launch can be moved up.

The potential length of the gap is controversial.   After years of issuing dire warning to Congress about the likelihood of a lengthy gap, the head of NOAA’s satellite division, Steve Volz, conveyed a very different message at a February 2015 hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing.   Volz downplayed the chances that there would be any gap.  His statements were met with surprise and disbelief by fellow witness David Powner, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) expert on NOAA’s weather satellites.  Powner asked that NOAA’s new estimate be put down in writing.

Yesterday, Sullivan tried her best to avoid answering the question, calling it a “pretty random exercise” that depends on “what probability” one wants to use.  As for moving up the launch of JPSS-1, she said NOAA has “turned over every rock” and asked its vendors what could be done and the answer is that a new “slug of money” will not help.

Culberson seemed primarily interested in the NASA-NOAA relationship and implied that he thinks NASA should be in charge of building the weather satellites instead of NASA, though he did not say that explicitly and told Sullivan he wanted to have further discussions with her about it.

“It seems to me logically [that] you should just let NASA build the spacecraft for you.  And NOAA obviously would be the customer and provide funding, but NASA does a pretty good job,” he said.

NOAA manages the nation’s civil weather satellite programs, setting the requirements for those satellites, managing the programs, and operating the satellites.   It uses NASA as its acquisition agent whereby NASA contracts with companies to build the instruments and spacecraft and to launch the spacecraft.  NOAA reimburses NASA for those costs.  Culberson seemed to be suggesting that NASA should play a bigger role than simply as an acquisition agent.

The Obama Administration is already requesting that some NOAA activities be shifted to NASA.   Conversely, others in Congress, including Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) of the Senate Commerce subcommittee that oversees NASA, make the argument that NASA should focus on space exploration, not earth science.

Culberson also asked about the $10 million request (part of the $380 million for PFO) for an EON-MW.  Sullivan explained it is a possible avenue towards getting smaller, lighter, less expensive microwave sounders and NOAA is talking to NASA about co-investing in it.

The hearing was about NOAA’s total FY2016 request and most of the questions were about other issues, not satellites. 

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.