Move NOAA satellite acquisition to NASA?

Maybe not CJS’ best idea.

Looking for bi-partisanship in the Congress? Of course we are. America faces big problems. We’ve elected and sent members of Congress to Washington to wrestle with them on our behalf. We hope and pray that our leaders of whatever political stripe are wrestling with the problems…not each other.

Something like that bi-partisanship surfaced in Congress just the other day. On a 17-1 vote the Senate’s Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittee (CJS) approved legislation that would move NOAA’s funding and building weather and climate satellites to NASA.

17-1? That doesn’t sound like a split along party lines, does it? Sure enough, the subcommittee’s chair, Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and the ranking minority member, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), seem to have been of like mind.

And that shared mindset is frustration. Senator Mikulski was quoted by E&E Publishing’s ClimateWire as saying “We have said time and time and time and again to NOAA, ‘Get your act together’”… “Continual cost overruns are eating up NOAA’s budget, and quite frankly, eating up the budget and goodwill of this committee.”

The last straw? She noted that the cost of NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) rose by $1B to $12.9B even as the allocation available for her spending bill shrank by $1B to $51.9B. Again according to E&E, Mikulski advocated letting each agency do what it’s best at: “NASA does know how to buy and build satellites… NOAA knows how to operate those satellites and get the most value.”

Vexation? Wholly understandable. And the response? Sounds good…on the surface. Congress working on a major challenge – taming the federal budget deficit. Congress working bilaterally. Congress taking action.

But ask yourself two questions. Does this action fix the problem it’s trying to solve? And is that action solving the real problem?

There’s room for improvement on both counts.

Does this action fix the problem it’s trying to solve? Not really. Mostly it just shifts it. Costs of weather and climate satellites are going up. They’ll continue to rise whether they’re in NASA or in NOAA.

[Here’s an analogy, an imperfect one (they all are) but bear with me. The sinking of the Titanic is fresh in our minds. The crew below decks reports to the bridge that the ship is taking on water. The captain orders the crew to confine the leak. Twenty minutes later the crew is still losing the battle. The captain has had enough, and orders the men to stand down. He turns to the crew in the aft part of the ship and asks them to take over.]

So what’s likely to happen, if we take no further action? The costs of the weather and climate satellites will continue to rise, unabated. However, now instead of cannibalizing the rest of NOAA’s budget, they’ll start eroding the budgets of all the Earth-satellite missions of NASA. There may be a bigger pot of money here to draw from, and what’s happening may be less-visible to the American public for a while, but one day we’ll look up and find that the United States is no longer at the cutting edge of Earth observation by satellite, because we will have redirected our innovation in Earth observing from space to cover operational costs of existing, aging technology.

What’s worse is that the NASA culture is a research culture. NASA is not now, nor has it been, in the business of maintaining and providing continuing, uninterruptible data streams for indefinite periods. It’s a science agency. Its task is to develop and try new ideas, demonstrate feasibility, and move on. And the hard part of service provision is not the technical part. It’s the strategic working with customers to identify future needs and meet those. The CJS idea is that NOAA will continue to do this bit. But this will require a new level of coordination between NOAA and NASA that has been missing for decades, ever since the termination of the Operational Service Improvement Program (OSIP), which was designed to facilitate this coordination.

In fact, it was the termination of OSIP that has contributed to today’s problem in a fundamental way. Failure to maintain the relatively small resources needed to ensure that NOAA remained a smart customer able and ready to take over a continuing stream of technological innovations from NASA has led to much of the current shortfall and the prospects for more.

So if you think that the rising costs of satellites was a problem for NOAA, if you think satellites represent only cost, and not also opportunity, then (another analogy), by this action you’ve transplanted not a healthy organ from one patient to another…you’ve transplanted a tumor.

Does the action address the real problem? No. The real problem is society’s need for satellites (and many other tools) to (1) guide our extraction of resources (food, water, energy) from the Earth; (2) help protect the environment, and (3) warn against natural hazards. This threefold problem is the defining challenge of the 21st century. And here it is time – not just funding to cover satellite budgets – that is of the essence. The good news is that satellite costs, even rapidly growing satellite costs, will remain miniscule relative to the large and growing rewards here for wiser real-world decisions and actions. This problem is doable – and worth the doing.

Other nations recognize this. China is ramping up its satellite Earth observation programs even as the US flirts with winding down. China accurately sees such observations not as sunk costs but as essential, high-payoff investments to foster its global aspirations over the coming century.  It will use the knowledge it gains from such satellites not just domestically but to project its power and influence over a world that hungers for more information on resources, the environment, and extremes of weather and climate.

In the last century the people and leaders of the United States demonstrated similar wisdom. When Nazi Germany overran Europe and the Japanese attacked, the United States didn’t just heave a collective sigh and say, “It’s too bad these challenges didn’t surface when we were rich, back in the 1920’s. Now, because of the Great Depression we’re too poor to wage war.” And when the war was done, the United States didn’t say, “Because of the costs of the war, we’re too poor to fund the Marshall Plan and rebuild Europe.”

So, back to the present day…

As a signal? An attempt to draw the world’s attention? Maybe the CJS vote makes sense. In the actual implementation? The CJS action would be a bad idea. Bad for NASA. Bad for NOAA. Bad for the country.

Just saying.

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