Stephen Volz

Assistant Administrator

NOAA Satellite and Information Service

Weathering Change

If you made a list of jobs for preparing someone to become the steward of the U.S. civil weather satellite enterprise, it might look a lot like the resume of NASA veteran Stephen Volz, whose previous job was associate director for flight programs in NASA’s Earth Science Division.

In addition to working closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on environmental monitoring activities, that NASA office also acts as procurement agent for NOAA’s weather satellites.

Volz, who left NASA in November to succeed Mary Kicza at the helm of NOAA’s satellite division, is a physicist by training who also worked for Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., the Boulder, Colorado-based prime contractor for the first satellite in NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program. Ball also built a precursor satellite, dubbed Suomi NPP, that was thrust into operational service to avert a gap in coverage.

The smooth rollout of the $11 billion JPSS program, which will feed U.S. weather forecasting models through 2028, is among Volz’s top challenges as he takes the reins at NOAA’s satellite office. He will also oversee the deployment of NOAA’s new generation of geostationary-orbiting weather satellites, which are slated to begin launching in 2016.

Volz acknowledged that beefing up cybersecurity is also a top priority, although he would not discuss the courses of action NOAA is considering. In July, the weather satellite office was criticized by the U.S. Commerce Department’s inspector general — NOAA is part of the department — for security gaps in its satellite ground segment. In November the agency acknowledged a cyberattack had disrupted the flow of weather satellite data to the National Weather Service.

Volz spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

People say the job you just took is a thankless one. Why did you take it?
Yeah, I got that question: “Why leave NASA to go to NOAA?” NASA’s fun and exciting, whereas NOAA is work and work, and you don’t get a lot of credit for it. But it’s exciting, it’s interesting, it’s rewarding, and that’s why I want to do it. NOAA’s satellites program is sort of the most complex system I’ve ever encountered. This is about the biggest system I can think of, at the moment. Providing information for the weather service is pretty key, and it touches everybody in the nation every day. And if it doesn’t touch people in the right way, it gets people concerned.

Which people, particularly?
There are many users, and everybody knows what they want, but they don’t necessarily know how to tell you what they want. Every congressman would be interested, every local representative. People want to know how the weather is doing. Our budgets are big, our projects are big, and our visibility is big, if we don’t perform. It’s easy to be at NASA; everybody loves NASA. NOAA doesn’t have the name recognition or the instant cache that NASA has, but it definitely touches the people in a more fundamental way on a daily basis.

JPSS-1. Credit: Ball Aerospace & Technologies
JPSS-1. Credit: Ball Aerospace & Technologies

Speaking of big budgets, why is the JPSS program going to cost $11 billion?
You’re looking at a life-cycle cost. A lot of that is sunk costs from the NPOESS days. Of the $11 billion, almost $3 billion came before 2010, when we were still under the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) with the Air Force. Also, there was a period of transition time going from NPOESS to JPSS, which was a little bit inefficient, but not grossly so.

This is an operational mission with 20 years. It started around the turn of the century and it goes to 2025. When you amortize that cost of the flight segments, the ground segments, the data deliveries, the data processing, over a 20-year period, it’s a significant investment.

Ball is building JPSS-1, which is set to launch in 2017, but NOAA has said almost nothing about the program after that, except that there will be a competition to decide who builds JPSS-2, which would launch around 2021.
We should be reporting on the full, expected polar satellite program, JPSS-1 and JPSS-2, the follow-on JPSS satellites, and any other satellites needed to meet the polar weather observations though 2028, in the president’s 2016 budget request [which is due in February]. For JPSS-2, proposals are in, and the target date for making an award announcement is April 15.

Canceling NPOESS left several payloads without a ride to space, including the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor, the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking-1 instrument for the international Cospas-Sarsat emergency search and rescue system, and the French space agency’s Advanced Data Collection System, which relays signals from marine buoys and sea creatures tagged with tracking devices. NOAA tried twice to put these instruments on a so-called Polar Free Flyer satellite, and Congress twice shot that plan down. What’s the plan now?
We got $7.3 million in the 2015 budget to continue planning launches for these sensors. For Total Solar Irradiance, we baselined launching to the International Space Station. We’ve been studying that for the better part of a year now. For the other instruments, we have to come up with options this year for ways to get those launched and into space.

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R program has seen delays and cost growth. What is the status of those satellites?
Our efforts to prepare GOES-R to launch in March 2016 remain on track and on budget. We just announced that all six GOES-R instruments are now integrated onto the spacecraft.

In October, the National Weather Service was hacked, some say from China, temporarily choking off the flow of satellite data to certain weather prediction models. What are your plans for bolstering cybersecurity at NOAA satellites?
We take each threat to our systems seriously, and we regularly evaluate our security measures and take action to defend our networks and mitigate those threats. NOAA is diligently working to ensure our systems are up to date and have all the appropriate protections in place.

Several startup satellite companies say they could spin up a sustainable business selling Earth observation data tailored for weather forecasting, provided NOAA is willing be to become a customer. How much or how little do you plan to work with these companies?
Commercially, there are possibilities now that weren’t available 10 years ago. We need to be aware of that; we need to work with that. We’re planning on releasing a commercial space policy in the next couple of months which will define our principles at the NOAA level of how we interact with commercial entities. That might be in January. My office will follow up with a policy not just about principles but about the implementation.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Bill Hrybyk
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Bill Hrybyk

Can you point out any pitfalls commercial weather hopefuls should avoid as they try to make a profit selling the data now shared freely by NOAA?
For global data, we must have a free and open data policy with our international government partners. If a company wants to sell data and have restrictions on global processes they observe and global measurements they make, that’s not consistent with our policy. That would be a significant and serious step backward. We need that data for our global models.

Over the last few years, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has raised the possibility of moving NOAA’s satellite procurement budget over to NASA, which is the procurement agent for NOAA’s weather satellites. Why does satellite procurement belong in NOAA?
NASA is a science-driven agency. NOAA is an operational, requirements-driven agency. You can see in many interagency assessments or Government Accountability Office reports or National Research Council reports that the agency that owns the responsibility should own the budget. Where you have an agency pairing in which one side has requirements but no budget and the other side has budget but doesn’t have ownership of requirements, then you end up with confusion. You end up with a conflict. Many times in history, that has led to poorly managed programs.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.