U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) questioned whether the Air Force can capably run space programs after trouble with its weather satellite program. Credit: House Armed Services Committee

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force plans to launch a weather demonstration satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket next year, but has drawn the ire of a key House subcommittee in trying to ensure funding for the launch was available.

In a letter dated July 1 to congressional defense committees, Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the Air Force, said the Compact Ocean Wind Vector Radiometer, would launch in September 2017 as part of a rideshare mission. The launch is part of a previously undisclosed contract with Spaceflight Industries, which arranges rideshare launches.

James asked Congress to lift restrictions on funding for the Air Force’s next-generation weather satellite program, known as the Weather Satellite Follow-on. Congress had fenced about $21 million from the program in 2015 and 2016 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act amid concerns the Air Force was not focusing on preventing two more immediate gaps in weather satellite data: cloud characterization data and in-theater weather imagery. Lawmakers also wanted a broader weather strategy from the Defense Department. That document is expected to go to Congress soon, sources said.

James said if the Air Force did not have access to the $21 million by July 15, “the current contractual rideshare commitment will be placed at risk.”

But leaders from the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee responded in a July 18 letter that they would release just $3.3 million, an amount they determined, in consultation with the Air Force, that would allow the launch to continue. They also noted that an electronic copy of James’ July 1 letter wasn’t sent until July 8.

“We are extremely disappointed in the manner the Air Force has handled the weather satellite program,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the subcommittee, and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, wrote.

“We find the current situation troubling because the Air Force has had over 18 months to develop and provide Congress a plan as required in the FY 2015 NDAA, and over seven months to provide a briefing and a certification as required in the FY 2016 NDAA. Rather than promptly completing those tasks, the Air Force instead has chosen to give Congress seven days to act on a request to waive the applicable laws in order to obtain the remaining FY 2015 and FY 2016 funds.”

The HASC, and Rogers in particular, has criticized the Air Force’s handling of weather satellites in recent years for what it has described as a lack of strategy and for wasting money and Congress’ time.

“We find the Air Force’s lack of planning and execution that led to this situation very troubling and note that these actions give us significant reservations regarding the Air Force’ s ability to effectively manage this important space program,” the letter said.

The Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space office has been tasked with working on a small weather satellite, known as COVWR or ORS-6, that hopes to prove out smaller microwave technology for creating weather data on ocean surface winds and tropical cyclone intensity.

The COWVR satellite is intended to provide ocean-wind data that currently comes from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Windsat satellite, which launched in 2003 and is well beyond its expected design life. The demonstration then would pave the way for the formal Weather Satellite Follow-on system, the first satellite of which would launch in 2022.

James’ letter appears to be the first mention of an Air Force contract with Spaceflight. A spokeswoman for the Seattle, Washington-based company declined to comment.

But during a session at the Conference on Small Satellites in Logan, Utah, Aug. 9, Air Force Lt. Col. Benjamin Cook of the ORS Office said ORS-6 would fly as one of several payloads on a Falcon 9 in the fall of 2017. “Instead of a dedicated launch, we can save significant funding by going with a rideshare,” he said.

Cook didn’t say if that launch is arranged by by Spaceflight, but he did state it was a “commercial rideshare” that had control of the schedule. “It does set our timeline, which is a little bit different than most Air Force missions,” he said. In September 2015, Spaceflight announced that it had purchased a Falcon 9 from SpaceX for a “dedicated rideshare” mission scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in the second half of 2017.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...