NASA’s Volz Named Head of NOAA’s Weather Satellite Division

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WASHINGTON — NASA Earth science veteran Stephen Volz is taking over as assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Satellite and Information Service, putting a seasoned NASA hand in charge of procurement and operation of U.S. civilian weather satellites following a period of political debate about whether the weather agency should do both of those things.

Volz, who has been associate director for flight programs in the Earth Science Division at NASA headquarters here since 2007, will start at NOAA Nov. 2, the weather agency announced Sept. 29. Volz succeeds Mary Kicza, another NASA alum who left in June after seven years of managing NOAA’s roughly $2 billion-a-year weather satellite portfolio.

“Steve Volz is a natural choice for NOAA, given his strong NASA Earth Science management background dealing with critical Earth observation satellites and working with the same contractors responsible for NOAA satellite and ground systems,” Walt Faulconer, a Maryland-based consultant and NOAA Science Advisory Board member, said in an email. “He will be able to help maintain, if not improve, that important relationship with NASA.”

Volz will take over with the rollout of NOAA’s $11 billion Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program already underway. The program has proved a headache for both NASA and NOAA since the 2010 dissolution of the joint civil-military weather satellite it was designed to replace. In 2012, when JPSS’s budget looked like it was running off the rails, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) proposed moving NOAA’s entire satellite procurement shop into NASA, which has long had a role in buying weather satellites.

That is an idea that makes sense to at least one space policy expert.

“Satellite acquisitions are not a good fit with the rest of NOAA,” said William Adkins, a consultant who formerly served as a House Science Committee staffer as well as in the National Reconnaissance Office. “The rest of NOAA is relatively small-dollar research and operations, with programs that don’t require extended multi-year major procurements and operations.”

Although responsibility for satellite procurement remains with NOAA for now, the White House and Congress reached an accord this year to prune instruments not directly related to weather forecasting from the JPSS program. The mandate came down as part of a 2014 spending bill signed in January, which gave NASA full responsibility for climate measurements that were supposed to be gathered by NOAA.

NASA, in the 2015 budget request it released in April, said the climate measurements will cost $240 million over the next five years. Although NASA is now paying the bills for that climate research, the agency still plans to host most of the requisite climate instruments aboard JPSS satellites. NASA is also relying on a hosted payload arrangement with a commercial geostationary communications satellite provider for some of these measurements.

Neither Volz nor Mikulski spokeswoman Rachel MacKnight replied to requests for comment for this story.

In the NOAA press release announcing his new appointment, Volz said he was “eager to come aboard and join the team.”

In the same press release, John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said he was “thrilled that NOAA has selected one of our top program managers to manage the environmental satellite effort.”

The first satellite in the JPSS program, Suomi NPP, was designed as an instrument test bed for the canceled civil-military system, but was pressed into operational service after its launch in 2011. The next JPSS satellite, JPSS-1, is set to launch in 2017, followed by JPSS-2, which is not yet under contract, in 2021.

One of the first decisions awaiting Volz at NOAA is whether to try and launch a gap-filler satellite to guard against the possibility of an early failure of JPSS-1 or JPSS-2. Last year, an independent review panel chaired by former Lockheed Martin executive A. Thomas Young urged NOAA to launch a gap-filler in 2016.

NOAA has not committed to a gap filler, but in March the agency procured extra copies of the two instruments — the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder from Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems and the Cross-Track Infrared Sounder from Exelis Geospatial Systems — needed for such a mission.

Besides JPSS, Volz’s jump to NOAA puts him in the middle of a debate about the role commercially provided data can play in generating data for U.S. weather forecasting products. Several companies are planning to provide such data and have an ally in Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a member of the House Science Committee.

Among the more stable NOAA projects Volz will take over is the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite program. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, California is building the next four in the series under a NOAA contract that is now worth about $1.4 billion, following NOAA’s decision to exercise options for a pair of satellites in 2013. Data from that package of satellites are expected to keep flowing through 2036.