Editorial: Belt Tightening Can Backfire

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As the U.S. government looks to curb spending in the near term it must be wary of decisions that will cost taxpayers dearly in the long term. Two examples that illustrate the danger are NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) for weather forecasting. Both programs provide indispensable services; both need funding commitments this year to avoid costly production breaks.

NASA uses the TDRS system to communicate with the space shuttle, international space station and low orbiting scientific satellites that are not in view of ground stations. The Department of Defense is another big user of the system, which consists of geostationary orbiting satellites and an extensive ground network.

Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems is building the latest generation of the relay spacecraft, TDRS-K and -L, scheduled for launch in 2012 and 2013, respectively. In a recent report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited TDRS as one the few big NASA procurements where everything seems to be going right: The satellites are both on schedule and budget.

According to the report, however, even if TDRS-K and -L are successfully launched on schedule, NASA and the other users will be assured of a full constellation only through 2016. Five of the eight TDRS satellites currently on orbit are aging, first-generation craft.

NASA’s contract with Boeing includes options to procure two additional satellites at a combined cost of $500 million. The first expires Nov. 30; the second expires a year later. In order to exercise the options, the report said, NASA needs a $1.2 billion commitment from its partner agencies, a sum that would cover the cost of the additional satellites, their launches aboard Atlas 5 rockets and government oversight costs.

A failure to secure that commitment could cause NASA to miss the ordering deadline, after which the cost of TDRS-M and -N will rise substantially higher than $500 million. For comparison purposes, the combined cost of the first two satellites was about $700 million. In an ideal world, NASA would be able to secure the commitment for the full $1.2 billion so as to be able to order both satellites this November. But failing that, the budgetary environment being what it is, NASA must at least get the commitment it needs to exercise one of those options to avoid a costly break in the TDRS production line.

The JPSS, which NASA is procuring on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), also faces a production break that would prove costly in the long run while leading to an unacceptable gap in the nation’s weather forecasting capability.

JPSS is the civilian progeny of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, a failed attempt to merge the weather satellite systems traditionally operated by NOAA and the Air Force. NASA currently has two polar-orbiting weather satellites on order: a spacecraft originally intended as a test bed for the civil-military system that is being pressed into operational service, and JPSS-1, which was placed under contract last year.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco told Congress March 10 the agency needs at least $910 million this year to avoid a break in production on JPSS, which includes an extensive ground network. But under the series of continuing resolutions that have funded the federal government since Oct. 1, and probably will for the remainder of the fiscal year, the program stands to receive $382 million — the sum that was appropriated for NOAA’s portion of the civil-military system in 2010.

According to Ms. Lubchenco’s testimony, NOAA will have to begin terminating JPSS-related contracts if the funding it needs in 2011 does not materialize. For every dollar not spent in this year, she said, the agency will have to spend three to five dollars in future years to build the program back up.

NOAA officials warned in February that JPSS-1, targeted for a launch in 2014, faces a yearlong delay due to the funding shortfall. Ms. Lubchenco said a gap is “highly likely” at this point and that continued funding delays will only widen it, potentially compromising NOAA’s ability to forecast severe weather events.

Reliable weather forecasts save both lives and property; this is not an optional capability. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, acknowledged during the hearing the critical need for weather satellites, although it remains to be seen whether he has the will or the influence to help NOAA overcome its 2011 JPSS shortfall.

Less encouraging were comments in which he questioned NOAA’s $53 million request next year for Jason-3, the latest in a series of U.S.-French ocean altimetry satellites. The Jason satellites, along with their Topex-Poseidon precursor mission, are a model not only of successful international cooperation but of the transition from experimental or research-oriented environmental measurements to operational ones. Ocean altimetry data have proved useful in forecasting severe weather and are a valuable planning tool for coastal communities. Hopefully Rep. Hall and others in Congress will come around to the view that Jason-3’s mission goes beyond climate change research — not that that activity isn’t deserving of U.S. government investment even in these tough fiscal times.

The congressional budget stalemate now appears as though it will result in the federal government operating for the remainder of the year at 2010 funding levels. Funding increases for individual programs will be hard to come by in this environment. But in the case of TDRS, JPSS and perhaps others, Congress needs to adopt a longer-term view: It’s either pay more now or pay a lot more later.