D. Dowd Muska


NOAA’s Satellites: Weather, or Not?

February 05, 2015

Washington’s 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.”

NOAA has 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.

Weather 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 in coverage.”

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.”

But 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.

GOES-R’s 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.

If 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 assumptions.”

Federal 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.

For 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.”

That’s where the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act comes in.

“We need 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.”

In 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, nothing’s changed.

Unlimited-government activists like to boast about the many tasks that “only” the public sector can accomplish. Monitoring weather from space is a frequent citation.

It shouldn’t be.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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