DMSP spacecraft
Defense Meteorological Satellite System (DMSP) spacecraft. Credit: U.S. Air Force Credit: U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON – Following the lead of its House counterpart, the Senate Appropriations Committee is recommending no funding next year for the U.S. Air Force’s legacy weather satellite program, casting doubt on the service’s plan to launch the last spacecraft in the long-running series.

In a defense spending bill for 2016, the Senate panel also provided funds to expedite development of an American-made rocket engine to end reliance on the Russian-made engine used today to launch many of the Defense Department’s national security satellites.

The bill, which must be reconciled with the House version, cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee June 11.

Both the House and Senate bills would bring an end to the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, a line of weather satellites dating back to the 1960s. The last of those satellites, DMSP-F20, had been tentatively slated to launch around 2018.

The Senate bill denies the Air Force’s $89 million request for the DMSP program next year. Further, the panel denied any funding needed to launch the satellite, going as far as to rescind $50 million that was appropriated for that purpose in 2015.

Between the House and Senate bills, Congress is set to close the book on a program whose last satellite has been the subject of shifting Air Force plans for the past few years. Built in the 1990s, DMSP-F20, was penciled in for a 2020 launch even as the Air Force studied whether the cost — including additional years of storage — was worth it.

The study, completed this past September, recommended against launching the satellite. But the Air Force nonetheless said it intended to launch the satellite in 2018 to help offset the loss of Middle East-area coverage now provided by European satellite slated for retirement in 2017.

In a report accompanying its bill, the Senate committee said the earliest the Air Force could launch the satellite is in 2018 or 2019. By that time, the combined cost of storing and launching the satellite will have ballooned to $410 million-$455 million, the report said.

“The Committee questions the Air Force’s decision to incur these additional costs to launch a satellite with 1990s technology that the Air Force has previously stated no longer meets its requirements,” the report said. “The Committee believes that such funds would be better spent on developing new technologies and enhancing the capabilities of the next generation of weather satellites.”

While the Senate Approprations Committee was putting the final touches on its spending bill, DMSP-F20’s fate was being debated the other side of Capitol Hill as the House prepared to vote on its version of the bill. Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said on the House floor June 10 that “it would be a shame to waste those dollars” already spent on DMSP, but acknowledged the Air Force has “not properly managed its space weather program.”

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said the defense weather satellite program was “stymied by poor program planning and execution” as well as a lack of “programmatic and financial discipline.”

In addition to driving what might be the final stake in the heart of the venerable DMSP program, the Senate bill also trimmed the Air Force’s request for a replacement system dubbed Weather Satellite Follow-on. The service requested $76 million for the effort next year, but the Senate recommended providing just $21.1 million.

The Senate bill also provides $228 million in 2016 to accelerate development of an American replacement for the Russian-built engine that powers the Air Force’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket. The engine development effort has a $220 million budget for 2015, but the Air Force requested only $84 million for 2016.

Congress mandated last year that the Defense Department develop a domestic engine that would be ready to fly by 2019. U.S. propulsion provider Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, has said the effort needs at least $200 million next year to meet that schedule.

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.