Sen. Shelby Questions Need for Two NOAA Satellite Programs: COSMIC-2 and SIDAR

Sen. Shelby Questions Need for Two NOAA Satellite Programs: COSMIC-2 and SIDAR

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker last week that two of NOAA’s satellite programs are nice-to-have, but not essential and do not meet his priority test in today’s budget environment.  The two are COSMIC-2 and SIDAR (a new program this year that replaces the Polar Free Flyer).

Shelby is the top Republican on both the full committee as well as its Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, which funds NOAA (as well as NASA).  While his Democratic counterpart Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the full committee and the subcommittee, is known as an advocate of environmental satellites, both Senators have expressed reservations over the years about NOAA’s ability to manage satellite programs effectively.

In recent years, the disagreements have centered on NOAA’s two major satellite development programs – the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series.  Those programs appear to have stabilized, but NOAA has several other satellite programs and Shelby believes at least two of them are of lower priority than other NOAA activities.   NOAA has broad-ranging duties, including fisheries and coastal zone management, of great importance to Alabama.

Pritzker testified about the full range of issues at the Department of Commerce at the April 10 hearing on the Department’s FY2015 budget request.  The President is requesting $8.8 billion for the Department.  It has a panoply of responsibilities from radio frequency spectrum management for federal government users to management of the contract for assigning domain names for the Internet to cyber-security research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to implementing export-import policies to preparing for and conducting the 2020 Census.

NOAA would get $5.5 billion of the $8.8 billion.  NOAA’s satellite programs would get $2 billion of that.

Shelby questioned the need for COSMIC-2 and SIDAR, calling them “nice-to-have” projects rather than “must-haves” like JPSS and GOES.   NOAA is requesting $6.8 million for COSMIC-2 and $15 million for SIDAR, a total of $21.8 million of its $2 billion satellite budget.

Ironically, NOAA requested no funding for COSMIC-2 last year, but this committee added $4 million.  That amount was cut in half after negotiations with the House, for a total of $2 million in FY2014.   For FY2015, NOAA is requesting $6.8 million.  A follow-on to COSMIC, a joint project with Taiwan, it involves a constellation of satellites that uses GPS signals for radio occultation (GPS-RO, or alternatively GNSS-RO for Global Navigation Satellite System-Radio Occultation) measurements to enhance the accuracy of polar-orbiting weather satellites.   Rick Anthes and Thomas Bogdan published an op-ed in the Washington Post today explaining why COSMIC-2 is a “crucial element” in enhancing weather prediction.   Anthes was co-chair of the National Research Council’s 2007 decadal survey on Earth Science and Applications from Space.

SIDAR is new in the FY2015 request, replacing last year’s Polar Free Flyer (PFF), which received none of the $62 million requested.   In that case, the House position to not fund PFF was adopted in negotiations with the Senate.

PFF was an effort to get into orbit three instruments that were orphaned after the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) was cancelled and replaced by the much smaller JPSS spacecraft.   They are the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS), Advanced Data Collection System (A-DCS), and transponders for the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system.

With no funding provided for PFF in FY2014, NOAA created the SIDAR (Solar Irradiance-Data-Rescue) line item for FY2015.  The FY2015 request is modest — just $15 million – and the projection for the next four years is shown as TBD.

Shelby did not mention two other NOAA satellite programs – Jason-3 and DSCOVR – for which funding is also requested this year ($25.7 million and $21.1 million respectively).   The request for JPSS is $916.3 million and for GOES-R is $980.8 million.

Shelby said that he was concerned that “not all of the satellite projects … are truly necessary to the core mission of NOAA” and that NOAA has not presented a “viable gap mitigation plan” for a potential gap in data from polar-orbiting weather satellites between the time existing satellites stop working and the first JPSS is launched.

Mikulski also asked when the committee would get that plan.  Pritzker said NOAA is currently focused on trying to move up the launch date for JPSS-2 so there is greater overlap with JPSS-1 (which does not answer the question of the gap between existing satellites and JPSS-1).  Mikulski wanted Pritzker to assure her than Pritzker was “standing … sentry over this” and would provide a new cost estimate for JPSS this month as promised.  Pritzker said she was not sure of the timing.   Mikulski also lauded Kathy Sullivan, recently confirmed as NOAA’s Administrator after serving in an acting capacity, for improving communications between NOAA and the Senate and better management of satellite programs.

Pritzker testified to the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee the previous day (April 9), but satellite issues were barely mentioned.   Subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) did, however, take the time to praise the service of NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services (NESDIS) Mary Kicza for her “yeoman” work as head of NOAA’s satellite programs for many years.  Kicza had just announced plans to retire this summer.  Wolf and Pritzker agreed on the need to find a successor as soon as possible.

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