Lawmakers Move To Protect Weather Satellites

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WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers are looking to shield civilian weather satellite programs from funding shortfalls that otherwise would result from the budget-cutting sequester that began March 1 and from an extended continuing resolution that would fund federal activities at 2012 levels for the remainder of this year.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee, said the operation of weather satellites is a high priority and that recent storms such as the tornadoes in Alabama and Hurricane Sandy proved weather satellites helped saved lives.

Wolf made the statement during a March 5 hearing and followed up with a letter to Rebecca Blank, acting U.S. secretary of commerce, later in the day. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which operates U.S. civilian weather satellites, is part of the Department of Commerce.

“The Committee would be willing to consider a reprogramming on an expedited basis” to ensure that NOAA’s weather satellite programs are adequately funded, Wolf wrote.

In all capital letters, he handwrote at the bottom of the memo, “This is very important.”

Wolf wanted representatives at NOAA to know that “they have a willing partner in Congress to prevent any negative impacts on weather forecasting,” Jill Shatzen, a spokeswoman for the congressman’s office, wrote in an email.

Concerns about gaps in weather satellite coverage have intensified in recent weeks as the prospect of sequestration’s indiscriminate budget cuts, as well as for a full-year continuing resolution, inched closer to reality. During a Feb. 25 panel discussion here, aerospace industry executives warned that such gaps could eventually make it harder to predict oversized storms like Hurricane Sandy.

Already, meteorologists who rely on satellite data are expecting at least a year-and-a-half gap in coverage after NOAA’s newest satellite, Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, reaches the end of its five-year design life. Suomi, which launched in late 2011, is in its final checkout phase, and its replacement, the Joint Polar Satellite System-1, is not scheduled to launch until 2017.

Todd Zinser, the Commerce Department’s inspector general, echoed those concerns during the hearing, saying he expected a gap of polar coverage of between 10-16 months.

Meanwhile, a bill introduced March 4 by Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and passed by the House March 6, would provide $802 million this year for NOAA’s newest geostationary-orbiting weather satellite development program. However, that figure could shrink by about 5 percent after sequestration cuts.

Intended to avert a government shutdown slated to begin March 26, the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 would fund NOAA, NASA and most other U.S. federal agencies at 2012 levels. Only the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs would receive tailored appropriations for 2013 under the big spending package.

But NOAA’s Geostationary-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite-R, or GOES-R, program, is granted an individual 2013 appropriation in Rogers’ bill. Under a straight continuing resolution, GOES-R, now in its peak development years, would have been funded for the remainder of 2013 at last year’s level of $615.6 million, which industry officials have warned is insufficient to keep the program on track for a first launch in 2015.