SAN FRANCISCO — During congressional hearings March 6 and March 7, U.S. lawmakers expressed concern that the growing cost of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite programs was forcing the agency to shortchange other worthwhile initiatives including weather monitoring, fisheries management, tsunami warning and ocean research.

“I am particularly concerned about how growth in NOAA satellite requirements is impacting the agency’s key ocean science missions,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation oceans, atmosphere, fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee.

The White House’s proposed 2013 budget asks Congress to provide NOAA with $154 million more than the agency received in 2012 funding. NOAA’s satellite spending, meanwhile, is slated to rise by $164 million. “That, in turn, puts pressure on the other very important programs,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said March 7 in testimony before the Senate panel.

Nevertheless, Lubchenco said satellite funding is an agency priority because satellites provide more than 90 percent of the data NOAA officials use to develop weather forecasts and disaster warnings, which help to save lives and property.

Under President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request, $2.04 billion of NOAA’s $5.06 billion in total funding would be allocated to the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS). Of that money, NOAA is requesting $916.4 million for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), a new generation of civil polar-orbiting weather satellites, and $802 million for the agency’s next generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES-R).

While NESDIS funding would rise by 8.7 percent, “many other offices or programs would experience reductions or level funding and a number of valuable programs have been proposed for termination,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican.

Senators questioned the wisdom of decreasing funding for navigation services, coastline debris removal, marine research and education. Lubchenco said she shared many of the senators’ concerns but the fiscal constraints forced NOAA officials to make “very, very tough choices.”

During a March 6 hearing, members of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee expressed similar concerns about the amount of funding NOAA was devoting to satellite programs instead of other worthwhile initiatives.

“For NOAA, satellites now comprise 40 percent of the total budget request, up from 31 percent just two years ago,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), chairman of the House panel.

House and Senate lawmakers also questioned whether NOAA was providing realistic JPSS cost and schedule projections. “While the committee applauds the successful launch of the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite we continue to have grave concern with the trajectory of the JPSS program,” Harris said. He questioned whether the first JPSS satellite could be launched on time, given problems NOAA has encountered in developing other polar-orbiting spacecraft. Even if the current schedule can be met, he added, NOAA faces “an almost certain gap in data” between the end of the Suomi NPP mission and JPSS operations.

NOAA officials do not see “any viable options” for obtaining those data from other sources during an anticipated gap in U.S. satellite coverage, Lubchenco said. “One of the greatest challenges facing NOAA is the continuity of our satellite operations,” she said. “JPSS and GOES-R are two of our highest priorities. We have done everything possible to contain costs. Funding is critical to minimize the duration of the expected gap between the recently launched Suomi NPP and JPSS.”

Lubchenco added that cost and schedule projections for JPSS were sound. The program has benefited from “intense internal and external scrutiny” and “the lessons of the National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System,” she said. “We have committed to capping the cost of JPSS at $12.9 billion.”

To meet that cost cap, NOAA officials were forced to scale back the number of sensors they intend to fly on JPSS, “but we are committed to staying within that cap,” Lubchenco said. “The success that we are having now with the Suomi NPP satellite, the [performance of] NPP instruments, our good partnership with NASA and all of the JPSS activities to date suggest that we are on track. We will be watching it very, very closely, but these satellites are too important to not be on the path to success.”



JPSS Cost Estimate Rises To $12.9B through 2028

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...