Senate Panel Would Shake Up Satellite Program

A U.S. Senate spending panel has endorsed a "really bold and somewhat controversial" shift in how the U.S. government builds weather and climate science satellites.

The Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee today approved a fiscal year 2013 appropriations bill that would shift responsibility for building four major satellite systems from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to NASA. The move—which would need approval from the full Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and the White House to become reality—marks the latest twist in a long and contentious debate over how to sustain an expensive and delay-prone satellite fleet.

"We're doing this because we've said to NOAA, time and time again, that they need to get their act together," Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the chair of the subpanel, said at today's vote on the bill. "They have had continuing cost overruns, and the satellites are consuming a bigger share of the NOAA budget. So we're going to let NOAA operate the satellites and NASA buy them and manage them."

"I know there will be questions about this," she added. "But the move will save money." Overall, the panel estimates the shift will save the government $117 million in fiscal year 2013.

The shift is included in a larger bill that would provide $3.4 billion for NOAA, $1.47 billion below its 2012 budget. It would involve four satellite systems, namely:

  • Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), which was originally conceived as a joint project between NOAA, NASA, and the Department of Defense. Budget troubles and technical delays, however, led the collaboration to falter, and completing the project had fallen to NOAA, placing major stress on its budget.
  • Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series
  • Deep Space Climate Observatory
  • Altimetry Mission (Jason-3)

"It doesn't matter what agency buys the satellites," Mikulski said in a statement issued after the panel's 17-to-1 vote on the overall $52 billion spending bill that covers several agencies. "It matters that procurement is managed frugally and gets us data and information we need."