Revised Space Weather Bill Clears House Committee

Revised Space Weather Bill Clears House Committee

The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee approved a new version of space weather legislation yesterday.  It is significantly different from the bill that passed the Senate last year and another that was introduced in the House. The goal of codifying government agency roles and responsibilities for space weather research and forecasting remains the same, but the new bill designates the National Space Council as the coordinating entity and establishes a pilot program for obtaining space weather data from the commercial sector.

Space weather refers to ejections from the Sun — Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and solar wind — that can overload systems on Earth and in orbit that are critical to daily life, such as the electric grid or communications and navigation satellites.

NOAA operates a Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colorado that alerts the aviation, radio communications, electric power, satellite, and emergency management communities when a severe space weather event is about to occur so officials can take precautions.  The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) is also in Boulder and Colorado politicians have been leading the charge on space weather legislation — Sen. Cory Gardner (R) and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D) — along with Michigan’s Gary Peters (D). The University of Michigan is a leading academic center for solar and space physics research.

Peters and Gardner introduced and the Senate passed S. 141 last year focusing on interagency coordination and cooperation in space weather research and forecasting.  The bill directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and its National Science and Technology Council to serve a coordinating role “to improve the nation’s ability to prepare, avoid, mitigate, respond to, and recover from potentially devastating impacts of space weather events.”  The principle agencies involved in research and forecasting are NOAA, NASA, DOD and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Perlmutter introduced a similar bill, H.R. 3086, last year. (Jim Bridenstine, then a Congressman and now Administrator of NASA, co-sponsored that bill.)  House SS&T held a hearing on space weather on April 26, 2018.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) at House Science Space, and Technology Committee markup of space weather legislation July 24, 2018.

House SS&T approved S. 141 yesterday, but after adopting completely new text offered by Perlmutter and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL).  It assigns the coordinating role to the White House National Space Council rather than OSTP.  The Space Council is required to establish national priorities for space weather within 6 months of the bill’s enactment. It also creates a National Committee for Space Weather Observation and Forecasting that must develop a National Space Weather Plan within 9 months of enactment to implement those priorities and delineate federal agency roles.  That committee would be co-chaired by the Administrator of NASA and the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce or their designated representatives.  OSTP is assigned to develop a National Space Weather Research Roadmap within a year of enactment to plan federal space weather research.

In a press release, Perlmutter said those three tasks “will encourage more collaboration between federal agencies, the academic community, and the commercial sector and build upon the National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan released in 2015.”

The new text has a strong focus on the private sector.  In the policy section, for example, it explicitly states that “space weather observation and forecasting are not exclusive functions of the Federal Government” and the government “should, as practicable, obtain space weather data and services through contracts with the commercial sector, when the data and services are available, cost-effective, and add value.”   The bill requires the Secretary of Commerce to establish a pilot program for obtaining space weather data from the private sector that appears analogous to NOAA’s commercial weather data pilot program.

The new version of the bill is a combination of an amendment in the nature of a substitute as further amended by a manager’s amendment, also offered by Perlmutter.

The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), strongly objected to consideration of the bill because Democrats were given notice only on Saturday afternoon that it would be marked up and had not seen the text in a timely manner.  “This may be the least amount of notice I have ever received of a bill being marked up in the Science Committee. In fact, until last Congress, this would have broken the longstanding committee notice requirements.  However, Chairman Smith changed the rules to allow weekend days to count toward the notice requirements.”

Smith responded that he had earlier committed to Perlmutter and Peters to mark up space weather legislation before the August recess (which begins tomorrow) and had exchanged messages with both of them over the weekend.

Johnson introduced Perlmutter’s original bill, H.R. 3086, as a substitute for the new text, but it was defeated 13-19.  Perlmutter voted against it, conceding that he had to vote against his own bill because “reality is” the new text is what he was able to negotiate in order to “advance this legislation.”

If it passed the House, the bill would have to go back to the Senate since it is different from the version the Senate approved.  Perlmutter said he was confident the bill would be approved by Congress before the end of the year.


Note: This article has been updated.



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