U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine
U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who emerged last year as a champion for commercial weather satellite startups, is expected to wield more influence as the chairman of a House panel that oversees NOAA. Credit: Corey Lack Pictures

Slow Process Should Not Deter Aspiring Data Providers

Government policymaking in an ideal world is proactive, but more often than not it is reactive or, as in the case of companies seeking to commercialize weather data collected via satellite, a muddle of the two.

Thanks in part to prodding from Congress, in particular Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released a draft Commercial Space Policy that lays out some of the terms and conditions under which it will buy data from these companies.

With one of the aspiring commercial weather data providers, San Francisco-based Spire, on the cusp of launching sizable numbers of cubesats able to derive weather information by measuring atmospheric distortion of GPS signals, the NOAA policy document comes not a moment too soon.

But Mr. Bridenstine, chairman of the House Science energy and environment subcommittee, is growing impatient. In a Sept. 23 letter to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, he and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the full House Science Committee, complained that the draft policy is lacking in detail, is unnecessarily burdensome and requires industry to meet data standards that the agency has yet to publish.
Such concerns are understandable given the resistance U.S. agencies historically have shown to buying data and services they have traditionally produced themselves. It’s fair to hold NOAA’s feet to the fire, but Congress also needs to get its own house in order. Legislation sponsored by Mr. Bridenstine requiring NOAA to publish data standards by year’s end seems to have gotten lost amid Congress’ apparent rush not to pass a bill to fund government agencies — including NOAA — for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Oddly absent from the letter was a major caveat laid out in NOAA’s draft policy: The agency is obliged as a member the World Meteorological Organization to share weather data openly and freely with other nations. If that obligation applies to commercially procured data, as NOAA insists, it could dramatically shrink the addressable global market for commercial weather data — to the point that it could shatter business models.

Spire and others remain hopeful, suggesting the draft policy leaves room for an accommodation that satisfies NOAA’s data-sharing obligations without killing the industry in its cradle.

Certainly this isn’t the first time policymakers have had to wrestle with thorny space commercialization dilemmas.

Commercial imagery is a prime example. The White House in 1994 issued the first policy governing the operation of privately owned U.S. satellites capable of collecting images with 1-meter resolution. Yet even before the first such satellites reached orbit several years later, heated debates broke out over unresolved or overlooked issues, most prominently “shutter control” — the government’s ability to restrict commercial satellite operations at certain times or over certain areas.

The process was neither pretty nor decisive, but what evolved over time is a policy that has enabled a thriving industry whose beneficiaries prominently include the government.

There is no mistaking NOAA’s data-sharing obligation, nor is there any question about its benefit: It’s giving the agency access to more satellites than it could hope to launch on its own.

The good news for Spire and its compatriots is that, thanks in no small part to the efforts of people like Mr. Bridenstine, the dilemma has been identified, and the process of resolving it is underway.