Notional move of NOAA satellite acquisition to NASA revisited

So all of us have slept on the idea…sort of…for six days.

Even with the added reflection, it still looks to be a bad move. And here’s why.

But first, let’s step back for a moment. It’s easy to see why Senator Mikulski (D-MD) and her fellow appropriations subcommittee members are frustrated. Who wouldn’t be? We’ve seen a decade of rosy initial cost-projections, followed by overruns and delays, followed by de-scoping, followed by new overruns and delays…maybe 2-3 cycles of this all-too-dreary spiral to the bottom.

And in the background? A well-intended attempt to “rationalize” federal programs and save a few dollars in the process has instead created managerial dysfunction. In the 1990’s, OMB decided that separate DoD and civilian weather satellite missions represented unnecessary duplication of effort, even though the different agency players and stakeholder communities had distinct objectives. A forced marriage of the Department of Defense and NOAA polar satellite programs resulted unsurprisingly in a collaboration that was desultory at best. Moreover, it contained a poison pill; a requirement that if either partner reduced its weather satellite program budget for any reason, the other would have to follow suit. This inherently unstable budget approach inevitably led to a crisis and triggered a program split brokered at the White House. Replication of the civilian-program woes on the military side then followed. In normal times both programs might have survived these setbacks, but the financial-sector collapse in 2008 sapped government’s willingness to soldier on (not just here, but on a number of essential fronts…but that’s another story).

Which brings us back to 2012 and to the Senate appropriations subcommittee. Everyone’s looking to them for an answer. And what are their options? Swallow hard, make cuts around the margins, hope that things will sort themselves out and look a little better next year…or at least grow no worse? Simply refuse to appropriate the funds needed? Or accompany the appropriation with a disruptive organizational change, to signal their displeasure? Maybe not surprisingly, they’ve chosen the latter.

But it’s still a suboptimal choice. To see this, ask yourself questions such as the following…

The move will pit NOAA operational satellite programs against NASA’s research satellite programs. We’ll see competition for funding, facilities and people. How will a research agency make such calls? Favor operations, and you compromise U.S. leadership in space science and technology. Favor science, and you increase the risk to the U.S. public from weather hazards, and costs to weather-sensitive sectors of the U.S. economy. And the fact is, NOAA’s service satellite programs begin and end with attention to customer needs. These user requirements are not just incidental, they are paramount. And they are different from purely scientific requirements. NOAA has understood and worked with these realities for decades. But it’s terra incognita for NASA management or organizational structure. And these are skills that can’t be mastered overnight.

Speaking of overnight, GOES-R and JPSS programs are concentrated every day, laser-like, on maintaining continuity of observations and avoiding the disruption in service that looms just a few years out if we fail to maintain full focus and momentum for any reason. Is now the time to create a huge distraction for these programs, their leadership, and their scientists and engineers? Do we really want them thinking about whether they’ll have a job tomorrow, and where, and fretting about organization charts, instead of on their program execution?

To be useful, the NOAA satellites must be plug-compatible with the NOAA’s ground-based communication and computing infrastructure responsible for turning the raw data into accurate weather forecasts. This is difficult enough when all aspects of the project are under one roof. How smoothly, and more importantly, how quickly and effectively, will that coordination be accomplished if the work lies in separate agencies?

That question brings us naturally to the Golden Rule…He who has the gold rules. If NOAA doesn’t control the program resources (funds, people, facilities, etc. – all of it) how much ability will it have to set requirements/priorities? How can it make its voice heard?

And finally, if NOAA loses its key systems development expertise in this arena, how does it prevent further erosion of such needed capability across the agency more broadly? Traditionally, satellite systems support has provided people, and culture, and capabilities that have contributed to systems development across the whole of NOAA. The contemplated transfer of satellite acquisition from NOAA to NASA doesn’t staunch such erosion; it feeds/accelerates it.

The tone so far seems a little somber. Maybe it’ll help to inject a little situational awareness. Here goes…

Early on in my professional career, an older hand asked me… “Hey Hooke! Have you ever heard of the six phases of a project?”

“No. What are they?”

My colleague went on…

“Phase 1. Enthusiasm.

Phase 2. Disillusionment.

Phase 3. Panic.

Phase 4. Search for the guilty.

Phase 5. Punishment of the innocent.

Phase 6. Awards and honors for the non-participants.”

Is it just me, or are you judging we’re somewhere near Phase 5?

Folks, if we persevere and stay the course we might find we are closer that it might seem to the successful end of this chapter of the story. The goal is not fixing the blame. It’s not even fixing the problem. It’s not just building and launching a series of satellites. The goal is nothing less than providing the Earth observations with the global coverage, the spatial detail, and the rapid updates needed  to save lives in the face of weather hazards; keep food on the table, potable, plentiful water in the tap, and energy in the pipeline; protect the environment and ecosystems; and project this U.S. capability across the globe to enhance geopolitical stability and national security.  Weather satellites – in NOAA and DoD – are not “nice-to-have.” They’re  an imperative. For the United States. For the world.

Transfer of parts of this job from NOAA to NASA will not make either agency stronger or more capable, will not help meet their mission requirements, will not save taxpayer money, will not speed up needed satellite development and deployment, will not reduce the risk of service disruption – will not even make us feel better, however vexed we might be.

Oh…and speaking of vexed? Both the challenge and the opportunities here go far beyond the purview of the Senate CJS appropriations subcommittee. Why should the country put all the responsibility for finding a solution and a way forward all on their shoulders? Why aren’t we rallying around a larger circle of folks to help out?

More on that in the next post.

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5 Responses to Notional move of NOAA satellite acquisition to NASA revisited

  1. James Henderson says:

    Hi Bill
    I certainly appreciate the thrust of your blog and as a retired operational meteorologist with over 41 years both operational forecaster and in management I appreciate someone of your intellect championing operations. However, having said that I believe your hammering NASA for not having an operational vent is not entirely correct.

    I will give you a couple of examples. Last night at the Kansas City Local AMS chapter meeting we had Dr. Geoffry Stano as our guest speaker. Dr. Stano was in Kansas City to work with the Aviation Weather Center. He is from the Short-term Prediction Research and Transition Center in Huntsville Alabama. A NASA facility. This center as ties with the SPC, AWC, WFOs on the west coast, WFOs in the central U.S. and WFOs in the south. Their main goal is to provide training and concepts to the NWS facilities in preparation of the launch of GOES 14. As he was speaking I couldn’t help but think of your comments and how this person was bringing an operational vent to the next flood of super data from GOES 14 including lightning mapper, etc. I asked Dr. Stano to make his slides available and when he does I will pass them on to you. You may already know all about this center.

    NASA has always had a meteorological division and while some of the management of that division turned off NOAA some good meteorologists migrated from NASA meteorological division to the NWS and became managers that led us through our modernization.

    I also recall that your old Center out in Boulder worked hard through PROFS to prepare the NWS for the new technology. I was honored to spend a couple of weeks in that effort and heard some interesting chatter from Director Little about how we operational types needed to have our input into the up and coming technology.

    Anyway, this is way too long, but I think you underestimate NASA and its ability to help the operations of the NWS. Just my two cents.
    Jim Henderson

    • Thanks, Jim for this thoughtful comment. I agree with both the substance and the tone of your remarks, and I hope others will read and take heed. I certainly didn’t mean to give the impression that NASA scientists weren’t up to the job. In my NOAA years I had great collaborations with NASA scientists at Goddard, Marshall, Ames, Langley, and elsewhere. And as you say the transfer of scientists back and forth from one agency to the other over the years has enriched the work of both. Louis Uccellini himself is just one of many examples.

      My point was rather with respect to the larger picture…that the nation needs the fullest, most effective contributions from both agencies, and that will best be achieved, and the strengths of both agencies sustained, if NASA is allowed to focus on its research mission, and if NOAA is equipped to provide and upgrade services over time. For both agencies this requires that they have the necessary infrastructure as well as the mission. What may appear from the outside to be duplication is in fact the complementary capability on both sides of the interface needed to ensure technology transfer.

  2. joe friday says:

    in all probability, if we had stayed the course on NPOESS, we would be approaching the launch of the first NPOESS far ahead of the planned (?) JPSS satellite launch schedule, and would have had a satellite much more capable than that currently being planned. NPP has been launched; the instruments are performing well. Recall that the delays and cost over-runs in NPOESS were heavily caused by the instruments. Those problems are essentially resolved. Now we have delays and budget growths in JPSS, so we are starting the process once again that will further degrade the US national capability!
    When I was the director of the NWS, were were reduced to having to borrow an aging satellite from the Europeans to cover the hurricane season because of delays in the NASA managed development of the new GOES system. That system, under NASA management, had a cost growth of over 300% and a delay in launch of 4 years. (Just some history that needs remembering )

    • William Hooke says:

      Many thanks, Joe, for that thoughtful addition… Some other history that needs remembering, to my mind: your years of service in the Air Force, NOAA/NWS, at the NAS/NRC, and Northrop-Grumman and AMS, tirelessly and continuously working to move these and other projects forward. Good on you!

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