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NOAA's Polar Follow On Program Zapped by House Appropriators

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2017
Updated: 12-Jul-2017 11:29 PM

NOAA's Polar Follow On (PFO) program to build the next two JPSS polar-orbiting weather satellites barely survives in the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee's draft budget for the agency.  Only $50 million would be allocated, compared to the $586 million NOAA said last year that it would need in FY2018.  The Trump Administration proposed a re-plan of the program in its budget request, asking for $180 million for FY2018.  The subcommittee is going well beyond that, but said it may reconsider its decision if NOAA provides better information about the re-plan.  The full committee will mark up the bill tomorrow (Thursday).

NOAA is building new generations of its two weather satellite systems, one that orbits around the Earth's poles (polar orbit) and the other in geostationary orbit above the equator. 

The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program consists of the first two JPSS polar-orbiting satellites.  It is fully funded in Trump's budget request and by the subcommittee.  The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite series R (GOES-R) program also is fully funded.

The question is what comes next.  The JPSS program itself funds only the first two satellites, JPSS-1 and -2.  The next two, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, have a different program name and funding line item -- Polar Follow On (PFO).   The original decision to split JPSS into different program lines was part of an effort to reduce the cost of what was officially labeled the JPSS program, although a number of changes have been made since.  Most recently, NOAA has been planning to procure instruments and spacecraft for JPSS-2, -3, and -4 simultaneously to achieve cost savings and create resiliency in case a satellite fails early or is lost during launch.

Budget constraints have changed the picture, however.  With the Trump Administration trying to cut costs across the government, it signaled early on that NOAA's future satellite programs would be reduced.  PFO is one of the targets.  NOAA had projected in its FY2017 request that $586 million would be needed in FY2018, but the Trump Administration's request was for only $180 million in FY2018 and "TBD" for future years. 

NOAA said it would "initiate a re-plan" and "work to improve the constellation strategy considering all the polar satellite assets to ensure polar weather satellite continuity while seeking cost efficiencies, managing and balancing systems technical risks and leveraging partnerships."

The CJS subcommittee funds the Department of Commerce, of which NOAA is part.  In its draft report, released today, it left no doubt that it found NOAA's new approach insufficient.   "The request proposes a dramatic and incipient re-plan of this program. Yet the request fails to assess the purported new mission design's impacts on constellation availability, or provide an updated gap analysis, or new annual or lifecycle cost estimates."   Therefore it approved only $50 million.

A gap analysis is an assessment of the possibility that a gap in coverage could occur if new satellites are not launched quickly enough to replace older satellites as they fail or if a satellite fails prematurely.  Because of the vital nature of weather satellite data, NOAA and Congress are determined to avoid gaps in either polar or geostationary weather satellite data.  Such assessments are difficult, though.  Many satellites outlive their design lives, but others do not and there is always the risk that a new satellite could be doomed by a launch failure.

The subcommittee added that it will reassess its decision on funding for PFO if NOAA provides better information.

Another NOAA satellite program whose future is in doubt is space weather.  NOAA is responsible for spacecraft that monitor the Sun for particle ejections that can damage  satellites in orbit and infrastructure on Earth like the electric grid.  The most recent space weather satellite to be launched to the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point for that purpose was DSCOVR.  NOAA proposed a plan last year to build two new spacecraft and instruments with the first one ready to be launched before the end of DSCOVR's design lifetime.  This Space Weather Follow On program was to be funded at $53.7 million in FY2018 according to NOAA's projections.

The Trump Administration's budget request did not support that plan, requesting only $500,000.  Congress has a strong interest in space weather.  On May 2, 2017, the Senate passed the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act and a companion bill has been introduced in the House.  For FY2017, Congress appropriated $5 million to NOAA for space weather, double the request.  

The House CJS subcommittee also boosted the request this time, approving $8.545 million, which is much better than $500,000, but far less than what the agency was planning last year.

In other NOAA space programs, the subcommittee recommended $6 million for the commercial weather data pilot program, twice what the Trump Administration requested. 

It also recommended $1.8 million for the Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) and $1.2 million for the Office of Space Commerce.  For FY2017, Congress funded the CRSRA at $998,000 and the Office of Space Commerce at $800,000.  For FY2018, the Trump Administration requested $1.2 million for each. 

The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the bill tomorrow at 10:00 am ET.  The meeting will be webcast.


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