Editorial | Uncertainty Returns to the Forecast

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For the better part of this year, things were looking up for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), the series of weather and climate monitoring satellites NASA is procuring on behalf of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Unfortunately, the indications of progress threaten to be short lived, thanks again to the chronic inability of a deeply divided U.S. Congress to pass annual appropriations on time.

On the heels of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System debacle that set U.S. weather satellite replenishment efforts back several years, JPSS, the civilian program that subsequently emerged, was dealt a blow when Congress failed to enact a 2011 budget. JPSS, like nearly all U.S. government programs, had to muddle through last year at 2010 funding levels. For JPSS, this meant making due with roughly a third of the $1.06 billion requested by program officials.

Things began looking up late last fall when Congress finally got around to approving $924 million for JPSS for 2012. Since then, NASA and NOAA have finalized contracts for the JPSS-1 satellite and announced plans to add two supplemental spacecraft, or free flyers, to the $12 billion program. The first of these free flyers, which would carry climate change sensors and other payloads that cannot be accommodated on JPSS-1, would launch in late 2016 — about the same time as the primary satellite.

Just before U.S. lawmakers left Washington for their annual August recess, Congress and the White House agreed to toss out the 2013 spending bills wending their way through committee and instead adopt a stopgap spending measure known as a continuing resolution to fund the federal government for the first six months of the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That appeared to be good news for JPSS; continuing resolutions generally keep programs funded at or their current levels. For JPSS, that would mean heading into 2013 at the current $924 million level, which is about $8 million more than NOAA included in the budget request it sent Congress back in February.

But Congress now appears poised to throw JPSS for a loop all in the name of budgetary flexibility. The continuing resolution lawmakers unveiled upon returning Sept. 10 from a five-week recess bumps up total spending by 0.6 percent and allows the NOAA brass to move money around within a $1.8 billion Procurement, Acquisition and Construction account to keep the first JPSS and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) R-series spacecraft on track for their mid-decade launches.

That sounds good in principle, but here’s the problem: There’s not enough money in that agencywide account to fully fund JPSS and GOES without gutting virtually everything else that’s in there — a likely nonstarter down at NOAA headquarters.

More than $1.7 billion of the roughly $2 billion that NOAA’s 2013 request sought for Procurement, Acquisition and Construction activities was set aside for JPSS and GOES-R. While JPSS was expected to need slightly less cash in 2013 than it got for 2012, the GOES-R budget was slated to rise to $802 million — a $185 million increase over the current funding level.

Paying for that increase, which presumably is needed to maintain GOES-R’s late-2015 launch date, won’t be easy. Not counting JPSS and GOES, NOAA planned to spend some $130 million in 2013 on satellite-related acquisition, including ground systems, continuing work on the French-U.S. Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellites, and completing the refurbishment of the Deep Space Climate Observatory — a NASA hangar queen being repurposed at the insistence of Congress. NOAA also planned to spend roughly $100 million in 2013 on non-satellite-related acquisition and construction activities, such as buying and equipping maritime vessels and funding upgrades at National Weather Service installations across the United States. Even if NOAA eliminated all non-satellite acquisition and construction spending for 2013 — which seems unlikely — it would need to cut its other satellite projects by 65 percent in order to top off GOES-R and JPSS. A more likely scenario is that the JPSS program will have to absorb some of the pain, largely by virtue of the fact that its first satellite is scheduled to launch more than a year after GOES-R.

This obviously fluid budget situation might explain why NOAA and NASA haven’t been on the same page when it comes the launch date for JPSS-1. NASA said as recently as late August that the launch remains on schedule for November 2016. A NOAA spokesman more recently said the launch has slipped to early 2017. One thing is clear: Uncertainty and instability have re-entered the forecast.