U.S. Senate Panel Votes to Transfer NOAA Satellite Programs to NASA

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SAN FRANCISCO — A U.S. Senate panel has proposed eliminating the role the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) currently plays in purchasing civilian weather satellites and turning that responsibility over to NASA.

“We have said time and time and time again to NOAA, ‘Get your act together,’” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, said April 17 during a short legislative session to markup the 2013 spending bill that funds NASA and NOAA, among other agencies. “We’ve been very concerned that NOAA and the Department of Commerce have shown little will to rein in satellite costs.”

By moving responsibility for purchasing weather satellites from NOAA to NASA, the government can save more than $100 million a year, Mikulski said. In the 2013 budget, the move would save $117 million, according to a press release issued April 17 by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Mikulski pointed to that proposed cost saving, when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) criticized the subcommittee’s spending plan, saying it did not go far enough to halt excessive government spending. Johnson was the only senator to vote against the panel’s 2013 budget plan, which the full Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up April 19.

As a result of the subcommittee’s plan to move weather satellite acquisition funding from NOAA to NASA, the panel is recommending that NASA receive $19.4 billion in 2013, approximately $1.6 billion more than the budget Congress approved for the space agency in 2012. When the weather satellite procurement funding is taken out of the equation, the new budget would be $41.5 million below the 2012 budget, according to the committee’s press release.

The Senate panel also recommends:

  • holding 2013 funding for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle at the 2012 level of $1.2 billion;
  • providing $1.48 billion for development of the Space Launch System (SLS);
  • giving NASA $244 million for construction needed to build, test, and operate Orion and SLS;
  • and setting aside $525 million for NASA’s effort to develop commercial crew taxis.

That funding for the commercial crew program falls far short of the $830 million the White House is requesting in 2013. There was some disagreement within the subcommittee on whether setting commercial crew funding at $525 million would force NASA to narrow the field of companies vying for the job of ferrying astronauts to and from the international space station.

“Our priority for NASA is to be able to select two competitors for the commercial crew vehicle so there can be a robust competition but one that saves the taxpayers from funding more than two different private companies and therefore wasting more money,” said the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

Mikulski said, however, that it would be up to NASA to decide how to structure the commercial crew competition. “We have funded [the commercial crew program] and I don’t know if it will be two companies or four,” she said. “That is more of an internal management thing.”