Solar flares shine spotlight on important program

WASHINGTON, D.C. – While solar flares affected electrical grids, cell
phone users, soldiers in Iraq, and even astronauts on the
International Space Station, a panel of witnesses warned of severe
consequences if Congress eliminated or transferred the office charged
with detecting and studying such space weather events.  The National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Space Environment
Center (SEC) in Boulder, CO predicts space weather, minimizing the
risk to systems that rely heavily on satellite performance. 

The future of the SEC is in jeopardy as a result of proposed budget
cuts.  The President requested $8 million dollars for fiscal year 2004
for the SEC.  However the House has proposed only $5.3 million and the
Senate has eliminated all funding for the program, arguing that NASA
or the Air Force could take over the Center’s duties.

Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee
Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) said, “It is clear from today’s hearing
that (1) the services that NOAA’s SEC provides are unique and vital to
our nation and its citizens every day, much more so than people
realize; and (2) it is neither within the mandate nor the mission of
the Air Force or NASA to take on these crucial responsibilities.  Such
a transfer would require significant cost expenditures above the $8
million sought by the Administration for the SEC.  It would also
undoubtedly cause a temporary to intermediate loss of space weather
forecasting services at a time when many critical U.S. industries and
the public increasingly rely on these forecasts every day.” 

Ehlers continued, “I believe this is a case of if it isn’t broke than
we shouldn’t try to fix it.  We will certainly share these views with
our colleagues on the Appropriations Committee.”

“Space weather forecasting is no less essential than terrestrial
weather forecasting,” added Subcommittee Ranking Member Mark Udall
(D-CO).  “If we do not continue to invest in space weather
forecasting, we will not only enjoy gazing at the Northern lights, but
we will also risk experiencing widespread blackouts. Let’s keep the
lights on, the planes flying and communications flowing by fully
funding the Space Environment Center and its vital research and
forecasting activities.”

“If the House [approved] level of $5.3 is enacted, there will be
dramatic consequences for SEC and the vital services it provides,”
testified Dr. Ernest Hildner, Director of the Space Environment
Center. He added that reduced funding would result in a choice between
either eliminating research and development into the effects of space
weather storms or elimating forecasting and monitoring, “at a time
when our services our increasingly in demand.”

Colonel Charles L. Benson, Jr., Commander of the Air Force Weather
Agency (AFWA) testified that the AFWA “aggressively reviewed” space
weather operations at SEC to determine if AFWA could take on SEC
duties in the face of proposed funding cuts.  AFWA concluded that
meeting such a challenge would be “both time consuming and costly.” 
Colonel Benson stated that the AFWA relies on much of the SEC’s data. 
“In particular, SEC’s expertise and experience in satellite-based
space weather measurements from NOAA spacecraft, and its one-of-a-kind
space weather modeling applications, would be very difficult to
reproduce at AFWA…There would an immediate and severe impact on
military operations if the Space Environment Center no longer existed.”

Dr. John Grunsfeld, chief scientist at NASA, added, “It is not within
NASA’s mandate as a research and development agency to provide the
operational forecasting services currently provided by the SEC.  In
addition, the technical capacity, budget and expertise required to
perform this activity could not transition to NASA without impacting
our other ongoing space flight operations and research.”  Grunsfeld
praised the work of the SEC and added that the program had unique
characteristics that were best suited for the SEC to handle.

Witnesses also testified that as the world becomes much more
technology dependent, the threats from space weather would continue
grow.  Dr. Robert Hedinger, Executive Vice President at Loral Skynet
testified that in the satellite industry alone, “significant
commercial investment and critical telecommunications services are at
risk resulting from space weather effects.”  Hedinger stated, “It is
critical to the Commercial Satellite Industry for NOAA SEC to continue
providing these services without disruption.”

“In our view, this program is not an example of a government program
that is broken and in search of a fix,” said Hank Krakowski, Vice
President of Corporate Safety, Quaility Assurance and Security at
United Airlines.  “Quite to the contrary, our work in cooperation with
the SEC exemplifies the use of American tax dollars at its best for
the protection of U.S. citizens.”

Grunsfeld added, “Losing the SEC forecast that supports space flight
missions would be like living along a coastal area without any
hurricane forecasting capability.  You would know when the hurricane
hit you, but you would have no advanced warning, no ability to take
preventative actions and no idea how strong it would be or how long it
would last.”

  • House Science Committee Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards Hearing Charter: What is Space Weather and Who Should Forecast It?
  • Opening Statement of Rep. Vernon Ehlers
  • Testimony of Dr. John M. Grunsfeld, NASA,
  • Testimony of Colonel Charles L. Bensen, USAF
  • Testimony of Dr. Ernest Hildner, NOAA (part 1) (part 2)
  • Testimony of Dr. Robert A. Hedinger, Loral Skynet
  • Testimony of Captain Hank Krakowski, UAL