While members of the House Science Committee trade charges of partisanship following the recent dismissal of the U.S. government’s top hurricane forecaster, the aging NASA satellite at the center of the controversy just gets older.
William Proenza lost his job as director of the National Hurricane Center after repeatedly sounding alarms about the inevitable demise of – and the lack of a replacement for – the Quick Scatterometer, or QuikScat, satellite, which measures ocean-surface wind speed and direction and has become an important tool for hurricane forecasters. The satellite was launched in June 1999 on what was supposed to be a three- to five-year mission and is operating on its last backup transmitter.
Conrad Lautenbacher, director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the hurricane center, maintains that Mr. Proenza was sacked due to poor job performance. That position is backed by a petition signed by half of Mr. Proenza’s staff calling for his removal. But there also is suspicion that Mr. Proenza sealed his fate by raising legitimate public safety concerns, in the process embarrassing the White House and his superiors at NOAA, who along with NASA have no clear plan in place for replacing QuikScat.
This set the stage for a July 19 hearing of the House Science Committee in which Democrats probed for evidence that Mr. Proenza was axed for blowing the whistle on his bosses, while Republicans accused the majority party of playing politics with the issue. Like an earlier hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee on weather satellites, the House hearing produced little in the way of ideas for strengthening U.S. forecasting capabilities.
Given the vital importance of hurricane prediction and warning, and the value of QuikScat to that endeavor, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle would better serve the public by devoting less energy to the politics surrounding Mr. Proenza’s dismissal and more toward prompting the White House to get a replacement satellite in the works.