Hurricane Sandy -- weather satellite image
While Frankenstorm / Post-tropical Storm Sandy fills the headlines, there is also growing concern over America’s weather satellites.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-13 (GOES-East) satellite failed on September 23. A backup satellite (GOES-14) was called into service and is now functioning as GOES-East. Unfortunately, the position of GOES-14 (further west than GOES-13) means there is some distortion on the Eastern edge of its images. Engineers are working on GOES-13 and hope to return it to service, but there is no timetable for that.

At the same time, there is growing concern over the Joint Polar Satellite System, which was scheduled for launch in 2014 but has been delayed until 2017 or later. The Government Accountability Office has predicted that this will lead to a gap of 17-53 months in polar-orbiting weather satellite data. The New York Times, Business Week, and Time magazine are among the media who have expressed concern.

The Joint Polar Satellite System is a replacement for the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which was canceled after its projected cost more than doubled from $7 billion to $15 billion. Cost estimates for the Joint Polar Satellite System have also been called into question.

Senator Barbara Mikulski, whose Appropriations Subcommittee oversees both NOAA and NASA, has expressed her concern with a call for action:

The Nation needs weather satellites to predict hurricanes, tornadoes, and other severe storms so forecasters can warn citizens and save lives. It doesn’t matter what agency buys the satellites. It matters that the procurement is managed frugally and gets us data and information we need. Unfortunately, the Committee has lost confidence in NOAA’s ability to control procurement costs or articulate reliable funding profiles. Therefore, we have taken the unprecedented step of transferring responsibility for building our Nation’s operational weather satellites from NOAA to NASA.

It is hard to see how transferring authority from NOAA to NASA would prevent overruns, however. NASA has had its own history of cost overruns, including massive overruns in the James Webb Space Telescope which, ironically, have been protected by Senator Mikulski. The Senator’s history of protecting and supporting NASA overruns has caused some observers to view her weather-satellite comments with skepticism.

In fact, NASA already plays a major role in weather-satellite procurement. As space-policy expert Marcia Smith notes:

NOAA sets the requirements (what instruments are needed, for example) and manages the POES and GOES programs from development through operations.   Because of its expertise in spacecraft and launch vehicles, NASA serves as the acquisition agent for NOAA.  NASA arranges for and monitors contracts with the companies that build and launch the satellites.  NOAA obtains the money for the satellites from Congress and reimburses NASA for its work.

As we’ve reported previously, there are also potential gaps in space-weather satellite coverage. There is need for better warning time, which could be provided with a low-cost CubeSat mission.

These current problems can be traced directly to actions by the United States Congress in the 1980’s. In 1983, the Reagan Administration proposed to privatize weather satellites and the LANDSAT earth-resources satellite. The Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) submitted a proposal to take over both systems. Other companies were also interested. Congress, however, believed that satellite operations were an intrinsically governmental function and strongly opposed the move, which was later dropped.

The assumption that government agencies are more capable of operating space systems than private companies is similar to what we see today in Congressional opposition to privatizing NASA’s human spaceflight requirements. Unfortunately, government agencies are not always the good managers Congress believes. With no competition, there is little incentive for efficiency or cost control. In fact, there are perverse incentives that reward delays and cost overruns. Today, the consequences of the weather-satellite decision, 29 years ago, are coming home to roost.

Written by Astro1 on November 2nd, 2012 , Space Policy and Management

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