Commentary | Please Don’t Drink the Bug Juice

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‘Bug juice” is the traditional U.S. Navy term for the sweet sugary beverage served on ships. Having served for 20 years as a Navy officer, initially in surface warfare operations and later as a career meteorology and oceanography professional, I know service in the fleet is thirsty work and a cool drink in the wardroom is always appreciated. But refreshing as it may be, bug juice has no nutritional value. It’s just like Kool-Aid after all.

I use this metaphor in responding to “Winds of Change for Weather Data” [Commentary, Oct. 20, page 19] because I fear its author, Jim Bridenstine, a U.S. representative from the 1st District of Oklahoma and fellow former Navy officer, has been sipping the cool but nonnutritional message being spread on the Hill though aggressive lobbying by companies such as PlanetIQ and GeoMetWatch.

Back in 2013, executives of those two companies authored “A Better Way To Weather the Satellite Gap” [Commentary, Dec. 16, 2013, page 19]. At that time, my colleagues and I who were serving in the companies working to complete and launch the nation’s next-generation National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather satellites — Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R and Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)-1 — saw the pitch (or pouring of Kool-Aid, to maintain the metaphor) by Anne Hale Miglarese and David Crain as an extremely serious threat to the funding of those critical satellite programs. And now, having read the piece by Mr. Bridenstine, I see our concerns were more than justified.

The congressman, whom I admire and with whom I agree on most political issues, is — with all due respect — being badly misled if he is willing to publicly assert there’s a problem with U.S. weather forecasting. Citing an arguably arcane ranking of statistical accuracy of American vs. some international numerical weather prediction models, and then offering a backhanded compliment to NOAA’s National Weather Service, he launches into a parroting of the marketing message for companies hoping to displace traditional government-acquired, -owned and -operated weather satellites with “commercial weather satellite data.”

Let me be perfectly clear: The National Weather Service is a crown jewel in the U.S. federal government and the envy of national weather services all over the world. The agency deserves to be seen by the public — and public servants in Congress — with nothing but pride and admiration. And, I should add, its sister agencies of the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command and Air Force Weather are also well deserving of this appreciation and admiration. Congress needs to back up this admiration with the financial resources to maintain our overall second-to-none operational weather services, and that includes continuing to support the satellites, both civil and defense, that make those services possible by assuring continuity of essential observational data to feed the models. Even in a constrained fiscal environment, this is a tremendous bargain. Accurate, life-saving forecasts are priceless.

Everyone is concerned about the cost of space systems, and NASA, NOAA’s acquisition and technical oversight agent for weather satellites, is working closely with the industry teams to increase efficiency without sacrificing essential quality and testing. The integrity of weather forecasts is everything and we simply cannot and must not substitute PowerPoint and promises for almost 65 years of engineering and experience.

And let’s not forget we not only share satellite data with the world but also obtain shared data from other nations through the World Meteorological Organization processes. The day the world cannot depend on the United States and we cannot depend on our international partners because of commercial data “licensing” issues is the day we put the public — and our national security — at risk.

Any assertion that commercial data buys can replace — or even improve upon — the absolutely essential polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellites operated by the government is simply wrong. The correct message that such commercial data can augment the government satellites is being misunderstood with the willing complicity of those selling it.

Any potential gap in polar satellite coverage cannot be filled by satellites that have not yet been built and using data management and computer model assimilation regimens that have not been designed or tested. And, by the way, there is no evidence of an early demise of the Suomi NPP mission, which is still working like a champ, as is the admittedly aging NOAA-19 satellite, which is also covering the “afternoon orbit.” I would not want to make light of the danger of a gap, but the likelihood of one happening is thankfully low. The best thing coming out of all the dire warnings in this regard has been the continued full funding for JPSS and GOES-R, both of which are absolutely essential to the nation.

This is, of course, an extremely important issue, and it is good to know Congress has made weather services a priority with strong bipartisan and bicameral support. Yes, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System program was an unfortunate and expensive setback due to a failed and now discarded acquisition process. Yes, the weather satellites being built today are pretty expensive. And yes, commercial weather data can be very useful in augmenting them. But no, no, no, there is simply no alternative to staying the course with the JPSS and GOES-R series of satellites, fully funded by Congress, for the foreseeable future. We have had continuity of data from these programs and their predecessors since 1960, and we must maintain continuity of data in the future.

When Mr. Bridenstine was a Navy pilot, putting his life and the defense of his country on the line — and thank God for people like him — he received briefings on weather and intelligence from professionals who were able to present him with the best possible information to help assure his mission success. The intelligence officers relied on national technical means, i.e. government-operated reconnaissance satellites, possibly augmented by commercially purchased imagery. And the Meteorological & Oceanographic officers (like me) relied on government-operated weather satellites, including the stunning and essential capabilities of NOAA satellites. These civil weather satellite systems were no less critical to his mission success than were the national defense and intelligence space systems. NOAA weather satellites — JPSS and GOES — are truly the equivalent of national technical means. And all the assertions to the contrary are just as nonsubstantial as a gulp of bug juice.

 

Jonathan Malay is retired from careers as a U.S. Navy officer and an aerospace industry professional. He is a fellow and past president of the American Meteorological Society, a fellow and past president of the American Astronautical Society and an associate fellow and former board member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He is currently an author and lecturer living in Fredericksburg, Virginia.