Q&A with NOAA’s New Satellite Chief Steve Volz
If you made a list of jobs for preparing someone to become the steward of the U.S. civil weather satellite enterprise, your list would look a lot like the resume of NASA veteran Stephen Volz, who in November became assistant administrator of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service.
Volz, a physicist by training, has worked at both NASA, which serves as procurement agent for all NOAA satellites, and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., the Boulder, Colorado-based prime contractor for the first two satellites in NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program.
The smooth rollout of that $11 billion program, which will feed U.S. weather forecasting models through 2028, is easily Volz’s top challenge as he takes the reins at NOAA’s satellite office.
SpaceNews caught up with Volz at NOAA satellite headquarters in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, on Dec. 15 — about a month after he changed lapel pins.
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. 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.
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. What’s NOAA’s strategy for the other two JPSS satellites?
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.
Several aspiring commercial weather 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 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.
Commercial weather hopefuls have said publicly that they want to sell data they collect to entities other than the U.S. government. Is that a showstopper for NOAA?
For global data, we must have a free and open data policy with our international government partners. To the degree that a company wants to sell data and have restrictions on global processes and global measurements that we need in our global models, that’s not consistent with our policy. That would be a significant and serious step backward.
Over the last few years, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has threatened to move NOAA’s procurement budget over to NASA. It never happens, but the issue seems to pop up every appropriations cycle. 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 where 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.