NOAA’s 2013 Op Plan Leaves COSMIC-2 in a Lurch

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WASHINGTON — A U.S.-Taiwan weather satellite program was dealt another setback in late May when the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) opted to use the COSMIC-2 program as a “bill payer” to cover a $13.7 million budget shortfall the agency previously planned to cover with a four-day employee furlough.

NOAA originally sought to pay for its 2013 share of the COSMIC-2 mission development cost using $13.7 million in disaster relief money Congress approved in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which struck the U.S. East Coast in October. However, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, rejected that proposal in early May, telling the agency to seek funding for the constellation of 12 GPS radio occultation satellites through the normal appropriations process instead.

At the end of May, NOAA submitted a revised 2013 spending plan to Congress that canceled furloughs related to the sequestration cuts affecting all federal agencies. “This was possible because of an increase in flexibility in how we use our funding,” acting NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan wrote in a May 31 email to the agency’s 12,000 employees.

Sullivan did not get into specifics, but NOAA budget documents obtained by SpaceNews show that $13.7 million previously earmarked for COSMIC-2 was transferred to two large personnel accounts. Meanwhile, the “4 Day Furlough” previously included on a list of “Billpayers” for miscellaneous budget shortfalls NOAA is facing due to sequestration was rolled back to zero, meaning furloughs are off the table. 

“What NOAA did is they sacrificed future improvements in technology to pay for people today,” a source familiar with NOAA’s spending plan said.

COSMIC-2,  which is short for Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate-2, was not the only satellite-related project to lose funding in NOAA’s revised 2013 spending plan. NOAA trimmed $2 million from the Joint Polar Satellite System, now in development, and $1 million from the legacy Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-N system, leaving those programs with $821 million and $25.8 million, respectively. 

About $2 million of that money stayed within NOAA’s $1.689 billion Satellite and Information Service account and was used to boost 2013 spending on the legacy Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite system to $30 million, or about $10 million more than 2012.

NOAA spokesman John Leslie did not respond to written questions about the agency’s spending plan revisions. Another NOAA spokesman, Chris Vaccaro, prevented a SpaceNews reporter from talking to Sullivan following a June 26 hearing on restoring U.S. leadership in weather forecasting.