Stopgap Spending Bill Gives NOAA a Measure of Flexibility on Key Satellite Programs

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WASHINGTON — The stopgap spending measure the U.S. Congress has vowed to pass to keep the federal government running through late March gives the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) budgetary leeway to keep two crucial civilian weather satellites on track for launch. But even with the additional flexibility, NOAA’s overall satellite acquisition budget stands to fall tens of millions of dollars short of what the agency requested for 2013.

The measure, known as a continuing resolution, was introduced Sept. 10 in the House of Representatives as lawmakers returned from their annual August recess. Just before the five-week break, House and Senate leaders announced they had reached a deal to keep the government running past September by passing a six-month continuing resolution that cleaves to the $1.047 trillion figure agreed to under the Budget Control Act of 2011. The continuing resolution would take effect Oct. 1, the beginning of the U.S. government’s 2013 budget year.

Continuing resolutions generally hold federal programs to current funding levels and prohibit agencies from starting new projects. The bill the House released Sept. 10, however, includes an across-the-board 0.6 percent increase and includes a provision allowing NOAA to rejigger an agencywide $1.8 billion Procurement, Acquisition and Construction account “to maintain the planned launch schedules for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) system.”

Those two programs alone account for a little over $1.7 billion of the $1.85 billion that NOAA planned to spend in 2013 on satellite and related ground-system acquisitions. An additional $100 million was budgeted for non-satellite-related procurement and construction activities, such as buying ocean vessels and funding upgrades at National Weather Service facilities.

If NOAA opts to fully fund JPSS and GOES at $916 million and $802 million, respectively, the agency would have just over $100 million left to spend on well over $200 million worth of other procurement and construction needs. Not counting the JPSS and GOES programs, NOAA was planning to spend about $130 million in 2013 on other satellite projects, including refurbishing the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft and continuing work on the Jason-3 ocean-altimetry satellite the United States is building with France.

The 2013 continuing resolution, which congressional sources said the House could vote on as soon as Sept. 13 with the Senate to follow soon after, requires the White House Office of Management and Budget to submit a plan within 30 days of enactment detailing NOAA’s plan for keeping the launches of JPSS-1 and GOES-R on track.

GOES-R, which is being built by Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, is slated to launch in 2015, according to a NOAA website.

JPSS-1, which is being built by Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., had been slated for a November 2016 launch as recently as last month but NOAA spokesman John Leslie said Sept. 11 that the satellite will launch in early 2017.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the JPSS and GOES procurements on NOAA’s behalf.