Despite almost constant partisan strife in the U.S. Congress, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree on this much: It’s worth knowing when to pack an umbrella. 

If they had any inclination to waver on this shared principle, it evaporated in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Weather satellite data were instrumental in predicting the highly destructive storm’s track along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard in October 2012, giving those in its path crucial time to prepare. 

Thus NOAA’s two main weather satellite development programs — the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R and Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) — were fully funded in the omnibus spending bill that passed in December and covers federal activities for the remainder of 2014. What’s more, Congress tried to shield these efforts from sequestration, the across-the-board spending cuts that affected virtually all other federal activities beginning in March 2013.

Nonetheless, the possibility of a gap in NOAA’s data-collection capabilities still looms, thanks largely to the 2010 cancellation of a troubled polar-orbiting weather satellite program that was intended to replace separate legacy systems operated by NOAA and the U.S. Air Force, and delays to JPSS, the civilian program that emerged in its stead.  

Also facing uncertainty are certain climate change sensors that are now NOAA’s responsibility but cannot fit on the first JPSS platform. NOAA had planned to fly these sensors on a dedicated satellite dubbed Polar Free Flyer, but Congress chose not to fund that program in 2014 and the agency is now looking at alternatives.

Mary Kicza has been in charge of the weather agency’s $2 billion satellite division since 2007. Under her watch, NOAA drew up the blueprint it will follow as it plans the transition from the agency’s legacy operational satellite systems to their next-generation replacements.

The GOES-R satellites, being built by Lockheed Martin, are scheduled to start launching in 2016, and JPSS-1 is slated to replace the Suomi NPP satellite — which was conceived as a demonstration platform but was thrust into an operational role — in 2017.  NOAA is ordering similar sets of instruments for three additional JPSS satellites but has yet to select a spacecraft platform manufacturer.

Kicza, who is leaving NOAA in mid-June, spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

The total life-cycle cost of the JPSS program seems a little bit high at $11 billion. What’s driving that?

JPSS fields a pretty complex system over many, many years. It’s actually quite a significant system that is fielded over decades. So $11.3 billion includes three satellites — that’s the operations of the Suomi NPP as well as the development of both JPSS-1 and JPSS-2. It includes the instruments fielded on Suomi NPP, JPSS-1 and JPSS-2, it includes the launch vehicles for JPSS-1 and JPSS-2 and both the primary and backup ground systems. That also covers operations, maintenance and sustainment, and the cost of inflation through 2025.

The JPSS and GOES programs were shielded from sequestration in 2013, but the rest of NOAA’s satellite division budget took a hit. How did you absorb that?

Just like everybody in the federal government, we went through sequestration in 2013. Additionally, we had rescissions in 2013 that we dealt with. Originally, we had plans in the 2013 budget to launch a satellite called Polar Free Flyer as part of JPSS. But in order to protect the JPSS launch we took money out of planned activities for Polar Free Flyer.

What happened with the solicitation NOAA issued for the Polar Free Flyer spacecraft?

We did have a solicitation for Polar Free Flyer; we have proposals in for Polar Free Flyer. We elected to hold off on moving out with those proposals so we could understand where we were landing with the 2013 and 2014 appropriations. In the 2014 appropriations, we got zero funding for Polar Free Flyer. So right now we’re in a process of replanning the Polar Free Flyer. 

The Polar Free Flyer satellite was supposed to carry the Advanced Data Collection System-1, the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking-1 instrument and the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor. What’s the latest plan to fly those capabilities?

NOAA is currently looking for rideshare and hosted payload opportunities for the A-DCS and SARSAT instruments, but we have not formulated a specific plan yet. For TSIS, NOAA is considering the international space station as a host. We did compare the station to other options, such as a hosted low Earth orbit and geostationary payload, and a dedicated small satellite, and in that process determined that the station is a viable option.

Will the JPSS-2 spacecraft contract be competitively awarded?


What’s the rationale for doing that instead of ordering a copy of the bus Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is providing for JPSS-1?

There are a number of spacecraft suppliers who can make these, and it’s typical when you have multiple suppliers that you do a competitive procurement. 

Is there some JPSS-2 requirement for which the Ball bus from JPSS-1 is unsuitable?

No. There are certain rules and regulations for when you go with a sole source. And typically when you have the ability to compete, you compete. 

Will NOAA award the JPSS-3 and -4 satellite bus contracts as options under the JPSS-2 bus contract?

That is our current plan, but we will continue to work through formulation. If we uncover a better plan, we would certainly consider a better alternative. We plan to post the request for proposals for the JPSS-2 spacecraft during the fiscal year 2014 time frame.

Some have suggested that this competition is just slowing down a program that is already in danger of leaving a gap in U.S. weather observations. Your response?

Even if you go with a sole source or a competitive option, protests exist. So your risks are similar. Right now, the schedule-critical element is not the spacecraft bus; it’s the instruments. The bus schedule is not the driver for the whole program, and there are competitors who are able to provide the service, so it’s in the best interest of the government to compete.

Is there a clear delineation between NASA and NOAA with regard to responsibility for certain climate research measurements?

It’s absolutely clear who’s accountable to deliver which observational capability to support climate research writ large. For example, NOAA has responsibility for the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System climate instrument, which will fly on JPSS-1. We also have responsibility for JPSS-2, launching in 2021, but NASA will have responsibility for fielding the follow-on radiation budget instrument in that time frame. NOAA still has responsibility for the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor that was manifested for the Polar Free Flyer. It’s NOAA’s responsibility to field that, although subsequent solar irradiance measurements will be NASA’s responsibility. Actually, if you look at some of the JPSS weather instruments — the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, the Cross-track Infrared Sounder — their measurements support climate research. Many agencies engage in climate research. 

What do you say to those who argue that NOAA is not taking the potential contribution of commercially obtained data to weather forecasting seriously enough?

I would say that NOAA already purchases data commercially, and we’ve done it for many years. We’ve purchased ocean-color data, we’ve purchased synthetic aperture radar data. When a capability is demonstrated to be available, we have no issue purchasing that data. If these companies come forward and are able to flight-demonstrate that capability, then certainly we would consider purchasing those services. 

Does NOAA have any sort of relationship with weather data startups like PlanetIQ or GeoMetWatch?

We’re in dialogue with them. They’re communicating to us their plans for capabilities in the future. 

Have you personally met these companies?

I’ve met with several, yes. Recently. We’ve had pretty regular dialogue. 

In 2013, the so-called Riverside Report caused a stir by suggesting that NOAA, in a worst-case scenario where U.S. weather satellites were unavailable, would have to rely on Chinese weather satellites. Would NOAA in fact seriously consider this?

The Riverside Report brought forward a wide range of activities that NOAA might consider to respond to a gap. One of many ideas they identified was potential use of international assets, and in particular the Chinese assets. From our perspective, it’s very important that as a nation we field our own capability to deliver weather information to feed our numerical weather models. So we’re not at a point where we want to rely on the Chinese capability as our mitigation strategy for our weather. 

Are you legally able to use Chinese weather data, if it comes to that?

That’s something we’d have to work closely with the administration on.

What’s the latest with the GOES program?

GOES-R is scheduled for launch in the second quarter of fiscal year 2016, and it’s on track for that. When it’s launched, it’ll become the on-orbit spare. Typically, we keep those assets in play as long as they’re available and right now the assets that are up there are all quite healthy. Four of the six flight instruments for GOES-R have been developed and delivered for integration into the spacecraft. One of the remaining two is the Global Lightning Mapper. 

NOAA requested about $40 million more for GOES-R in 2015 than 2014. Why? 

The GOES-R spacecraft, instrument, launch services and ground system activities were impacted by sequestration reductions in 2013. The 2015 request is in line with the planned program profile and is not an unanticipated increase. 

Contractually, how does the GOES pipeline look?

That current GOES contract calls for four satellites and lasts us through 2036, so we’ve got some time ahead before the next set of procurements for the geostationary program.

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...