Move NOAA satellite acquisition to NASA? …and other compartmentalized decisions

How serious are those rising weather satellite costs?

Here’s a comparison. If you’re reading this, chances are good you have a smartphone. That bling and a few apps might have set you back something like $100. And as the technology improves, you buy a new one or trade in or up every couple of years. Let’s say your income is $50-$100,000 per year. The cellphone is .1-.2% of that – about 3 times the fraction those NOAA satellites represent of the federal budget. [Of course your 3G or 4G service contract costs a good deal more over the same period.]

Read the print media or go online and you’ll learn that year-on-year the phones you’re buying are chewing up more and more bandwidth – and you’re footing the growing bill, both for the phones themselves and for that service. Again, something like what’s happening to those satellite costs.

This could frustrate you. You could complain that this growth in bandwidth the newer phones require and the associated costs are spiraling completely out of control. [The Siri feature to iPhones has in fact prompted some such comment.] Some people might go looking for a cheaper vendor or a dumber phone. A few maybe cancel their service entirely. Or recoup the extra cost by cutting back on the rest of their IT. Perhaps buy a cheaper, less capable desktop or laptop. Or forget buying a Wii.

[Not a perfect analogy to the NOAA satellites. But you get the idea.]

But that’s not what most of us do. At that price point, most of us focus not on the costs of the smartphone or the individual contributions to that cost but rather what that phone connectivity and information access buy us. They provide greater awareness and quicker response to workplace developments. Increased job productivity. Closer contact with family and loved ones. Handheld geo-positioning. Locating the nearby Starbucks. And much more (even weather warnings!).

We don’t compartmentalize. Instead we look at the bigger picture of our lives as a whole.

In the case of the NOAA satellite procurement and the overruns, who’s looking at this bigger picture – the satellites as the instruments that let us observe what’s going on with our weather and climate and oceans and landscape? That keep us from flying blind into a problematic future where our agribusiness must feed billions, our water resources must slake our thirst and run our industry, where our energy demands seem insatiable; where environmental protection is a must; where flood, drought, and storms threaten our health and safety?

Not the Senate CJS appropriations subcommittee alone. It has jurisdiction only for a compartment. The Commerce, Justice and Science budget. Not the dollars available to those behemoths like DoD, USDA, Energy, and others that depend day to day and hour to hour, year in and out, on those Earth observations. The subcommittee is using the only tools available to it: the budget and a draconian but unimaginative reorganization. The piece of the budget they control is some $60B/year…far larger than the $1B problem…but far smaller than the $2-3T that the federal government spends on all government services – mostly entitlements.

Where is the process and the dialog that has us all looking at the bigger picture? Asking what we throw away if we skimp on the satellite budgets and compromise both the NOAA observations we need for today and the next few years and the NASA innovation we need for decades to come? It’s not really happening. Everyone in both the legislative and executive branches is too beleaguered by the pace of today’s workplace and too pressed to get back to the business of micromanaging within their respective compartments. What political debate there is, when it’s not focusing on the candidates’ personal qualities – who’s cool, whose dog gets the most respectful treatment – is concentrated on the immediate issues such as the month-to-month upticks and falls of the unemployment figures. Our continued dependence on the planet we live on and basic goods and services such as food and water and energy? Only rarely and briefly up for serious, sustained discussion. And this isn’t the only consequential subject begging for a sustained and respectful national attention and debate. There’s health care and national defense and education and immigration. Our future and role in a globalized, resource-constrained world. Discussion on these matters has been reduced to sound bites and invective.

No blame here…that’s just the reality.

What are the likely effects of this compartmentalization? What risks might we face if we fail to step back, and look across government and the national agenda at the larger picture? Comprehensively? Urgently? Strategically?

Want an example that’s been on everyone’s mind these last few weeks? How about this one?

The Titanic.

We all know the story…in fact we’re tired of it. The ship struck an iceberg and was sinking rapidly. No worries. Simply close those watertight compartments and confine the damage. But that wasn’t what happened, was it? The ocean liner took on so much water that the bow went under, and then the entire vessel plunged like a knife into the deeps. From start to finish? Less than three hours.

In all the ink accompanying the 100th anniversary of this disaster, did you notice some of the discussion to the effect that many of the 1500 who died might have been saved? No, it wasn’t that hundreds more could have been put on those unused or less-than-full lifeboats. Rather it was this. Some engineers have suggested that if the captain and crew had used the fire extinguishing system to flood the ship’s aft compartments, that the vessel might have maintained balance, perhaps buying the few extra hours needed for the first rescue ships to arrive – maybe stabilizing to the point where it didn’t sink at all in the relatively calm seas.

The Titanic was the victim of compartmentalized thinking.

When it comes to the Earth observations, science, and services, on which we all depend…

…let’s think outside the box.

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One Response to Move NOAA satellite acquisition to NASA? …and other compartmentalized decisions

  1. Jim Mahoney says:

    Bill – Congratulations and thanks for your outstanding and thought-provoking comments. Jim

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