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Congressman Bridenstine: NOAA Satellite Strategy Should be More Like DoD

By Caleb Henry | September 17, 2014
      Jim Bridenstine official portrait 113th Congress

      Jim Bridenstine. Photo: United States Congress

      [Via Satellite 09-17-2014] United States Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., called for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to make use of commercial weather data to mitigate risk from both pending and potential future weather data gaps. Speaking at the Washington Space Business Roundtable on Sept. 16, the congressman said the agency should look to imitate the Department of Defense (DoD) when it comes to incorporating commercial resources for government programs.

      “As in other space ventures, the government should be involved in the initial phases of developing unproven technology and then, once that technology is proven [and] the risks are quantified, the private sector can pick it up and carry it. This is a model that NOAA should adopt,” he said.

      NOAA faces a challenge in coming years as aging weather satellites with limited refresh opportunities jeopardize the ability to compute accurate weather forecasts. The agency spends roughly half its budget on satellites; specifically on the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP). Launched in 2011, the five-year NPP mission ends in 2016.

      NPP’s successor is a collaborative NASA-NOAA project called the Joint Polar Satellite System 1 (JPSS 1). The next generation spacecraft has fallen behind schedule to 2017. NOAA anticipates a weather gap where the U.S. will have insufficient polar satellite data to accurately predict events such as severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes. In a 2013 high-risk report, the Government Accountability Office (GOA) said this gap could range from 17 to 53 months or more.

      Bridenstine’s bill, the Weather Forecast Improvement Act of 2014, takes several steps to offset this pending gap by prompting NOAA to purchase commercial data and make this a regular part of how the agency operates. The bill requires NOAA to make funds available for non-federal weather researchers through competitive grants, contracts and cooperative agreements.

      “JPSS is an $11 billion program that will last until 2025. Depending on when it is launched, the annualized cost of it is just over $1.4 billion per year. PlanetiQ plans to sell [Global Positioning System Radio-Occultation] GPSRO data to the U.S. government for about  $40 million per year … that’s less than 3 percent of the cost with no money required up front,” he said.

      Bridenstine added that while federal programs like JPSS are important, the U.S. government should not rely as heavily on them. He warned that an anomaly or a launch failure would result in debilitating setbacks that would take even longer to fix.

      To address this risk, the congressman advocated for the increased use of smaller satellites and hosted payloads. Several companies such as GeoMetWatch, GeoOptics and Tempus Global Data are pursuing these methods. With more spacecraft in orbit, the chance of one malfunction causing widespread damage is contained.

      “Going forward, NOAA should adopt Department of Defense principles that include the disaggregation of space for the purpose of resiliency. That’s the model that NOAA should adopt. It’s the same model that we’ve seen successful in the Department of Defense as it relates to imagery and communications,” Bridenstine said.

      The DoD has not gone without criticism on its procurement methods, and Bridenstine briefly highlighted the need to shift away from the Defense Information Systems Agency’s (DISA’s) short-term one-year spot contracts. Commercial industry has repeatedly called for more stable purchasing methods in this regard.

      The Weather Forecast Improvement Act of 2014 includes rules that prevent NOAA from purchasing polar orbiting and geostationary satellite systems or data with lifecycle costs in excess of $500 million without conducting an Observing System Simulation Experiment (OSSE). The bill appropriates NOAA $360 million for the 2015 to 2017 time frame, and in addition to the heightened commercial emphasis, tasks the agency with identifying the risk for future weather data gaps and determining a variety of ways to address them.

      Bridenstine’s bill passed the House of Representatives with bi-partisan support. The congressman showed no surprise that the Senate vote might not occur until 2015. But, he added that he would not hesitate to resurrect the bill should the Senate vote against it.

      “If it doesn’t pass the Senate this session… I will reintroduce it next year early,” he said.