SUMMERLAND KEY, Fla. — A dark joke is circulating among U.S. climate scientists regarding the placeholder tag “GFE” [for “Government Furnished Equipment”] that reportedly now appears on the blueprint for the next-generation of U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellites wherever climate sensors were to have been installed.

GFE, the joke goes, stands for “God-Funded Equipment.”

The joke illustrates the funding uncertainty thrown into the U.S. climate monitoring program by the U.S. decision last June to halt work on climate sensors for the forthcoming National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). In the face of a massive cost overrun on the satellite program, NPOESS managers cut the climate sensors to focus on the spacecraft’s primary weather forecasting instruments.

“There’s this mission called climate and it has no home,” one U.S. scientist said to summarize the situation.

Officials from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have begun deliberations aimed at resolving the climate conundrum for the administration’s 2009 budget request and long-range spending plan. U.S. officials agree that the climate sensors need to be restored, but there is no agreement about how that might be done.

“The intention is not to abandon any of these instruments, but rather to prioritize them and get them on other launch vehicles or some other approach. That’s what we’re working on now,” said John Marburger, U.S. President George W. Bush’s science adviser and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “It’s a big priority for us.”

Marburger said in an interview with Space News that it might be most cost-effective to install the instruments on “free flyers,” meaning satellites other than NPOESS. “That’s quite feasible. On the other hand, it may turn out that some modifications of existing instruments or some slight change of plans may make it possible to do more on NPOESS,” he added.

For now, the White House has directed that “NPOESS move forward in a way that doesn’t close doors,” which explains the Government-Furnished-Equipment labels, Marburger said.

One idea that’s being floated unofficially by a U.S. satellite manufacturer is to emphasize climate change as a national security issue, which in theory would raise the possibility of the Pentagon chipping in funds for the climate instruments. Marburger was cool to that idea.

“We don’t do it that way. [The Department of Defense] should pay for the things it needs to carry out its missions,” he said.

Until last June, climate scientists were counting on the NPOESS satellites to take over the job of climate monitoring from the satellites of NASA’s Earth Observing System. NASA’s original EOS plan called for launching successive generations of satellites to deliver a decade and a half of unbroken, atmospheric climate readings.

The data would help define the impact of human pollution on climate and improve prediction models, NASA officials explained. In 1999, the Clinton administration shifted the future EOS instruments onto the planned NPOESS weather satellites. Bush administration officials quickly filled the long-range funding void with a host of new space acquisition programs, including the plan to send humans back to the Moon.

Climate researchers were peeved when NPOESS managers pulled most climate-related sensors out of the NPOESS satellite plan last June to get the program back within a legally-imposed, cost-growth cap. Marburger said his office has now instructed NASA and NOAA to suggest solutions for the climate sensor dilemma.

Marburger said his office will coordinate the discussion and issue a recommendation to the Office of Management and Budget for the President’s 2009 budget request.

NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher has responded to Marbuger’s call for ideas by renewing his request for passage of a law — “an organic act,” he calls it — that would formalize NOAA’s already de facto role as the country’s “climate services” agency.

“In our organic act, we would sharpen that definition and focus. But right now, if you look at where the most money is being spent in climate research, you’ll see it’s in NASA,” he said in a press briefing at the National Space Symposium April 11 in Colorado Springs, Colo .

“The issue is, ‘How do we extend that into the future?’” said Lautenbacher, who envisions NOAA taking the official lead on climate measurements, though the agency would tap NASA’s expertise in procurement and systems engineering, much as it does today with development of geosynchronous meteorological satellites.

For his part, NASA administrator Mike Griffin has yet to suggest a solution to the budget impasse. “This is something where the White House office of Science and Technology Policy is going to have to take a stronger lead,” he told reporters during a separate press briefing April 12.

As for Lautenbacher’s idea to give his agency the lead, that is “not even a proposal yet, it’s a discussion,” Griffin said. “It’s just way too early in the process to comment on what we would do, or how it would be done, or how the funding would be done.”

“We’re still kind of coming to the grips with the fact that the NPOESS program is not going to host the climate sensors that it was planned initially to host, and how we’re going to pick that up and where the funding for that is going to come from,” Griffin said.

Marburger said he understood Griffin’s frustration. “The time will come when we will play a stronger role, when we get all the information from the agencies,” Marburger said.

Then he added: “Mike Griffin is a competent, impatient administrator. I think that we’re doing what we need to do, and we’ll do it a pace that gets us to the right answer at the right time.”