February 05, 2015
screwed up again, and this time, it could jeopardize weather forecasts.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) operates the federal government’s weather satellites.
The spacecraft “provide
consistent, long-term observations, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” to
meteorologists and climatologists, tracking everything from “fast breaking
storms across ‘Tornado Alley’” to “tropical storms in the Atlantic and Pacific.”
two types of weather-watchers. Polar-orbiting satellites dates back to the
1960s, and scan the entire planet twice a day, supplying the information used
to craft prediction models. Geostationary probes have been around since the
1970s. They orbit 22,300 miles up, and transmit images of a fixed location.
satellites are immeasurably important -- by giving advance warning of nasty
attacks by wind, rain, snow, heat, and cold, they save lives. That’s why two
recent reports by the Government
Accountability Office (GAO) are so disturbing. The audits, Space News summarized, found that both
systems “face technical issues, delays, cost growth and the potential for gaps
The Geostationary Operational
Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series, the GAO wrote, “is expected to
provide the first major improvement in the technology of GOES instruments since
1994 and, as such, is considered critical to the United States’ ability to maintain
the continuity of data required for weather forecasting through the year 2036.”
GOES-R is in trouble. Since the start, the project, GAO auditors charitably put
it, “has undergone several changes in cost and scope.” A four-satellite constellation,
GOES-R was to launch its first bird in September 2012. But the schedule has slipped
by three and a half years. The number of instruments on the satellites, and the
kinds of analysis to be delivered, have fallen. And the budget has ballooned.
Originally envisioned at $6.2 billion, the current estimate is $10.8 billion.
sister is the Joint Polar
Satellite System (JPSS). The constellation is a replacement for a canceled
architecture, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite
System (NPOESS), created in the 1990s as a $7 billion collaboration between
NOAA, NASA, and the military. By 2005, NPOESS’s price tag had risen to $10
billion, and its first launch had been delayed by two years. A 2010
restructuring scrapped the tripartite arrangement, and the Pentagon went off on
its own. JPSS was originally estimated to cost $11.9 billion, inclusive of the
$2.9 billion already spent on its predecessor program. The total rose to $14.6
billion before a cost cap of $12.9 billion was imposed. The predictable result:
fewer satellites, instruments, orbits, and ground stations.
GOES-R falls further behind, the GAO believes, “NOAA could experience a gap in
satellite data coverage.” As for JPSS, its bureaucrats’ cheery estimate of a
possible three-month interregnum is “based on inconsistent and unproven
management of space systems -- civil, intelligence, and military alike -- is a
depressingly monotonous tale. Optimism runs wild, and satellites are rushed
into production before their technologies are mature. Costly problems pop up in
testing and integration. Deadlines pass. Capabilities are reduced. Taxpayers
get gouged. Bureaucrats and contractors are rarely held accountable.
NOAA’s woes, at least a partial solution is at hand, courtesy the profit
motive. Three firms -- PlanetiQ,
GeoOptics, and GeoMetWatch -- seek to sell weather
data. But Wall Street is skeptical, one of the companies’ CEOs recently
lamented, because it has yet to see “evidence of a buyer.”
where the Weather
Forecasting Improvement Act comes in.
to move from the government owning and operating huge satellites to a day when
the government can purchase data from private satellite operators,” argues Rep.
James Bridenstine (R-OK), whose legislation made it through the House of
Representatives in the last congressional session but failed to draw any
interest in the Senate. The Act would have required the “Secretary of Commerce
to transmit to Congress a strategy to enable the procurement of quality
commercial weather data,” mandating that such strategy “assess the range and
expected cost-effectiveness of commercial opportunities, including
public-private partnerships, for obtaining both surface-based and space-based
weather observations” and “make a plan for procuring data, including an
expected implementation timeline.”
February 2013, the GAO added “Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data” to its list of bureaucracies and
programs that are vulnerable to “fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are
most in need of transformation.” It’s been two years, and evidently,
activists like to boast about the many tasks that “only” the public sector can
accomplish. Monitoring weather from space is a frequent citation.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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