Editorial: Misplaced Priorities in Congress

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One might think that Congress, having given itself an extra six months to pass a budget for the 2011 fiscal year, now already half over, would get the easy funding decisions right. In the case of civil space, and in particular a next-generation weather satellite system, however, lawmakers flat out blew it. In providing just $382 million for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), brushing aside appeals from the White House and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for an additional $528 million to jump start the program, lawmakers have all but guaranteed there will be a gap in U.S. weather forecasting capabilities within the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, in a demonstration that Congress is primarily concerned with where taxpayer dollars are spent, rather than how, the budget bill, which funds NOAA, NASA and the rest of the federal government for the remainder of the fiscal year, provides $3 billion for deep space exploration hardware that for the moment has no mission. It seems unlikely in the lean budgetary years ahead that there will be funding to conduct meaningful exploration with the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle, for which lawmakers provided $1.2 billion, and the Space Launch System, a super-heavy-lift rocket that will receive $1.8 billion.

It isn’t like Congress didn’t have time to think this through. Capitol Hill got its first look at U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget request in February 2010. Yes, the NASA request was highly controversial; it called for terminating Constellation, a congressionally approved program to replace the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle with rockets and capsules that initially would transport astronauts to the international space station and eventually back to the Moon. And to be sure, the White House failed to take into account the industrial-base implications of its proposal, particularly in propulsion. But lawmakers have been at least as myopic, to the point of dictating the design and technical specifications of a giant rocket that, should it be built, will fly only rarely — perhaps once every year or two — yet require a standing army to maintain at a huge cost. Meanwhile, NASA has had to scale back its ambitions in robotic planetary exploration — flagship-class missions are off the table, for example — and several lawmakers in the House of Representatives have signaled their intent to scale back the agency’s Earth science program.

Given its emphasis on climate-change research, Earth science is a predictable target for global warming skeptics in the Republican Party, which now leads the House. But why Congress wouldn’t fully fund JPSS, which would be built by NASA on behalf of NOAA, is a mystery. Although the satellites will collect data applicable to climate research, the primary mission is operational weather forecasting, which saves lives, property and money.

NOAA typically operates four weather satellites, two in polar orbit and two in geostationary orbit overlooking the East and West coasts of the United States. The polar orbiting craft provide global coverage; the information they gather is critical to severe weather and drought forecasts that save billions of dollars each year for the agriculture, aviation, fishing and shipping industries alone.

NOAA is already well behind schedule in replacing its current polar-orbiting weather satellites courtesy of a failed attempt to merge its system with a similar one operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. The now-defunct National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System fell so far behind schedule that a NASA-funded spacecraft originally intended as a research platform and a test bed for the civil-military system’s instruments has been thrust into an operational role. That satellite is now slated for launch by the end of this year.

The first JPSS satellite, JPSS-1, was put under contract last year with plans for a launch as early as late 2014. Now that launch will take place no sooner than September 2016, making it likely that there will be holes in U.S. weather coverage a few years down the road — even if all goes well with the launch of the NASA satellite later this year. Congress knew this: On March 1, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that a coverage gap was likely due to Congress’ failure to pass a budget bill for 2011. At the time, NOAA, like the rest of the government, was operating under one of a series of continuing resolutions that held spending rates to 2010 levels, which in the case of JPSS was $382 million. In addition to putting U.S. weather forecasting capabilities at risk, Congress has now driven up the cost of a must-have program at a time when the nation is trying to tighten its purse strings.

If there’s good news in the final 2011 budget bill it’s that Congress finally got around to passing one, bringing some level of predictability — at least for the next five-and-a-half months — to a space industry facing an uncertain future. Another plus is that the legislation gives NASA relief from a 2010 law that hampered the agency’s ability to terminate contracts associated with the Constellation program. But this budget pours too much money into deep space exploration hardware in the absence of a well-considered plan for how it would be used while badly shortchanging a service as critical as space-based weather forecasting. Congress needs to get its priorities in the right order.