Recent solar storms demonstrate Colorado facility’s critical expertise

As the Sun bombarded Earth the last several days with high-energy
particles released from gigantic solar flares, the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Environment Center (SEC) kept a
“weather eye” on the solar fireworks.  Alerts issued by the Boulder,
Colorado, forecasters were the prime source of information for
communications and power companies working to avoid service
disruptions.  Firefighters in California were warned that radio
communications might be interrupted.  The crew aboard the
International Space Station took shelter as their vehicle passed
through the solar storms.

At a hearing today before the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee
on Environment, Technology and Standards, Congressman Mark Udall
(D-CO) said, “Space weather forecasting is no less essential than
terrestrial weather forecasting.  We have increased our reliance on
satellites, air travel, and electric generation and transmission – all
of which are vulnerable to space weather events – and the SEC ensures
that these investments are protected.  Given the huge investments that
taxpayers have made in the technology to monitor space weather, it
would be the height of folly to withdraw our support for the
activities of the SEC.”

Udall, the Subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, said that “the Bush
Administration’s $8.3 million budget request for the SEC is a small
insurance premium for multi-billion-dollar investments vulnerable to
space weather events.”  The House version of the Commerce, Justice and
State Appropriations bill cuts the President’s budget request by 40
percent, while the Senate eliminates the center’s funding altogether.

NASA Chief Scientist Dr. John Grunsfeld testified today that radiation
monitoring equipment aboard the Space Station “was designed as a
back-up to the radiation monitoring and forecasting data provided by
SEC.”  As the Committee learned last week, the SEC’s support is even
more essential at this time because the failure of sensors called
Tissue Equivalent Proportional Counters (TEPCs) in June 2002 has
severely reduced the ability to monitor radiation on the Space
Station.  Difficulty in tracking the crew’s radiation exposure
contributed to the decision by Nitza Cintron, NASA’s chief of space
medicine, and William Langdoc, chief of NASA’s Habitability and
Environmental Factors Office, to initially dissent from certifying
that the current Station crew was ready for launch.

The Space and Life Sciences Division Readiness Review for the launch
of the current Station crew, held September 24, 2003, highlighted the
“[p]otential that ground-tracked radiation data and forecasting from
satellites will be reduced or eliminated in FY04 (NOAA)” as a reason
for expediting installation of a new TEPC sensor aboard the Station.

Some lawmakers have suggested that SEC’s operations should be moved to
the military or NASA, but witnesses recommended against this.  Colonel
Charles L. Benson, Jr., Commander of the Air Force Weather Agency
(AFWA), said the SEC’s operations would be very difficult for the Air
Force to reproduce:  “The space weather research and technology
transition expertise resident at SEC would take years to build at
AFWA.  There would be an immediate and severe impact on military
operations if the SEC no longer existed.”  Dr. Grunsfeld testified to
the unique skills and capabilities at the SEC, and stated, “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.”

NOAA’s space weather work had a commercial focus from its start in
1965.  Captain Hank Krakowski, Vice President – Corporate Safety,
Quality Assurance and Security at United Airlines, testified today
that the SEC’s products allow the airline to mitigate any risks that
solar storm activity might disrupt communications, navigation or the
health of passengers and crewmembers.  “We are concerned that a
reduction in funding could damage this important source of real-time
safety information for our airline.  We are also concerned that
transferring operation of the SEC to another federal agency could
result in a disruption, degradation or filtering of critical
information,” said Krakowski.  Dr. Robert Hedinger, Executive Vice
President of Loral Skynet, a satellite operator, concluded his
testimony by stating, “It is critical to the Commercial Satellite
Industry for NOAA SEC to continue providing these services without

Udall concluded, “If the SEC was not already in existence, we would
have to create it.  It’s clear that the proposed cuts in the Center’s
budget request are ill-advised.  The Sun sent us a signal this week,
one the conferees for the Commerce-State-Justice appropriations bill
should heed.”