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

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