At Hearing, Rep. Bridenstine Maintains Focus on Weather Satellite Programs

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House Environment Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jim Bridenstine has convened another in a series of hearings on the nation’s weather satellite programs, building on his ongoing interest in the programs’ management and future.

On July 7 the Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held the latest in a series of hearings on the nation’s weather satellite programs. Representatives of the U.S. Air Force, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Government Accountability Office testified as witnesses.

Weather satellite programs back in the hot seat

In the past decade, NOAA’s and DOD’s next-generation satellite programs have experienced delays, disruptions, and cost overruns, leaving them politically vulnerable. At this hearing Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full committee, renewed attacks on NOAA in particular:

Congress should not continue to fund an over-budget program that has not performed up to standards. So what is NOAA doing differently with its next series of satellites that justifies such high continued funding? I fear the answer is nothing…. The growing private sector weather enterprise could mitigate NOAA’s shortcomings through new technologies and sources of data, but NOAA shows that it will only take action if forced to do so. If NOAA is afraid of innovation, maybe they shouldn’t be in the business of deciding what technologies are needed for improved forecasting.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), chairman of the Environment Subcommittee, has generally struck a more conciliatory tone. Since becoming chairman, he has kept the government’s weather satellites programs under close scrutiny, and has been Congress’s strongest advocate for the government use of commercial space technology and data (see FYI #55). However, Bridenstine has also expressed his desire to support, reform, and reshape existing space programs and policy. In April, he introduced the “American Space Renaissance Act,” which aims to harmonize defense, civil, and commercial space activities. And, at this latest hearing, he affirmed, “I am not in any way suggesting the privatization of NOAA … or the National Weather Service.”

With Smith leaving early and most subcommittee members absent, the hearing quickly took a technocratic, nonpartisan turn, focusing on administrative challenges. The last hearing on these programs, in December, concentrated on immediate dangers to maintaining continuity in NOAA’s geostationary satellite coverage. This hearing primarily addressed sun-synchronous, polar-orbiting coverage, including both NOAA’s responsibility for the “afternoon” orbit and the DOD’s responsibility for the “early morning” orbit. The European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) is responsible for a third, “mid-morning” orbit.

Questions focus on satellite program coordination and planning

Many questions at the hearing related to how DOD and NOAA have coordinated satellite development and coverage following the termination of their troubled joint National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program in 2010.

Ralph Stoffler, U.S. Air Force Director of Weather, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, was in line for hard questions on the subject. Last year, Congress terminated the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), and in February, DOD’s newest polar-orbiting weather satellite, DMSP Flight 19, failed, placing the DOD weather satellite program in a precarious position. In her testimony, Cristina Chaplain, GAO Director of Acquisitioning and Source Management, reported on DOD planning for maintaining the resiliency of its satellite capabilities. She drew particular attention to DOD difficulty responding to a potential gap in coverage over the Indian Ocean, and to ongoing lack of coordination with NOAA.

Bridenstine took up this last subject, asking Stoffler to explain the recent loss and regaining of a European commitment to providing coverage in the region. Stoffler replied that, following EUMETSAT’s decision last year to withdraw coverage following Meteosat 7’s retirement, DOD explored using Chinese satellite data. Only after concluding that that plan posed an unacceptable cybersecurity risk did the department reach out to EUMETSAT (via NOAA) and secure an agreement with EUMETSAT to supply data using Meteosat 8.

On the larger question of coordination, Bridenstine asked Stoffler and Stephen Volz, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services, whether it would be helpful to institute a new national executive committee for weather satellites. Stoffler and Volz both replied that there were already strong coordinating mechanisms both nationally and internationally, and Volz suggested that the need was for improved NOAA-DOD communication. Volz noted that when DOD approached NOAA, NOAA was already deep in negotiations over the Indian Ocean coverage issue.

Volz answered detailed questions concerning, among other issues, the reliability of NOAA’s “flyout” charts indicating expected satellite lifetimes, the construction and launch plans for its next-generation $11.3 billion Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), and the implications of potential satellite instrument failures for forecasting capabilities. David Powner, GAO Director of Information Technology Management Issues, outlined these issues as well as threats to the launch schedule for JPSS-1 and to the security of the JPSS ground system. GAO has been pushing NOAA on these issues to mitigate the risk of a near-term eight-month data gap, and to ensure the integrity and cost-effectiveness of the JPSS program in the long term.

Bridenstine dives into details, continues push for commercial data

All of the subcommittee members present at the hearing asked probing questions about DOD’s and NOAA’s satellite programs. Bridenstine, though, set the pace. Drawing on his own experience as a Navy pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan, he clarified witness testimony for committee members about the differences between NOAA’s global weather program and DOD’s mission-oriented program. He also delved down to the level of technical choices in satellite design, asking Stoffler about DOD’s interest in forthcoming hyperspectral imaging technology.

Bridenstine’s attention to such details has been informing his vision for a hybrid government-commercial weather data enterprise. At this hearing, he reiterated and explained his desire to facilitate a satellite architecture in which full suites of instrumentation are not confined to a single satellite bus:

One of the reasons I think commercial is so important—and I want to be really clear, I support JPSS, I want to make sure JPSS is fully funded—but I do believe commercial is important because commercial satellites are being launched with miniaturization of technology, miniaturization of electronics. We’re going to be able to launch a lot more satellites in more distributed architectures that … complicate the targeting solution for enemies. But also with smaller satellites you can launch more of them, you can launch them more frequently. When you have new technologies that arise, you can put them in orbit very rapidly.

Stoffler and Volz provided updates on their efforts to engage the commercial sector. Volz reported, “It’s going at a relatively breakneck speed. I know it may not seem like that to the commercial side, but to the government side it is going relatively quick.”


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