Editorial | Weather Satellites Get Needed Funding Flexibility

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One of the few things Congress has done right in recent weeks was passing a measure that gives the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the funding flexibility it needs to keep its weather satellite programs on track.

The measure was included in the temporary spending bill passed Oct. 16 that allowed the government to reopen following a crippling shutdown that lasted nearly three weeks. The continuing resolution funds most federal programs at 2013 levels through Jan. 15.  

The flat funding scenario could prove problematic, especially for NOAA’s Geostationary-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite-R program, which was targeted for a steep budget increase this year to remain on schedule for a first launch in early 2016. The program already is behind its original schedule and additional slips will increase the risk of a gap in coverage. NOAA also faces a potential gap in coverage from polar orbit, but the agency’s 2014 request for the Joint Polar Satellite System represents a decrease from the previous year.

To guard against potential gaps, Congress carved out an exemption for weather satellites in the continuing resolution, which was signed into law Oct. 16. Although the bill does not specify a budget for either program, it grants NOAA the discretion to fund both at whatever rate is needed to keep them on track — at least until a replacement spending bill is passed.

It remains to be seen what form the follow-on legislation will take: It could be a short-term or full-year continuing resolution, or conceivably it could be an actual appropriation that spells out 2014 funding levels for all federal programs. In recent years Congress has been partial to continuing resolutions, an easy way out for lawmakers that, coupled with sequestration’s indiscriminate budget cuts, is making life increasingly difficult for both military and civil space program planners.

Congress has an opportunity here to pass actual spending bills for NOAA, NASA and the Department of Defense, and there does appear to be interest in doing so, at least for the Pentagon. That would be most welcome, even if lawmakers fail to address sequestration’s erosion of U.S. government space capabilities.

One of the great ironies of sequestration is that it ultimately will drive up the cost of necessary programs. For example, the delay, attributed to sequestration, of the contract award for the Pentagon’s next-generation Space Fence, designed to keep tabs on the increasingly debris-strewn Earth-orbit environment, is expected to add $70 million to its price tag.

But when it comes to weather satellites, at least, it appears that lawmakers have finally gotten the message about the need for funding stability. In this day and age, that’s something to be thankful for.