Budgets cuts to delay new weather satellites

House Science Subcommittee hearings page

National Weather Service forecasting could deteriorate if budget cuts lead to a loss of satellite coverage of the earth's surface, House members said this week.

The administration has cut $14 million from this year's budget for the next generation of weather satellites, called the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. It is proposing another $130 million in cuts over the next several years.

The cutback will delay the launch of the first NPOESS satellite, planned for mid-2008, until February 2010, witnesses told the House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards.

The 21-month delay could leave the United States without adequate weather data if the earlier generation of satellites fails sooner than expected, experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Defense Department told the subcommittee.

Gregory Withee, NOAA's assistant administrator for satellite and information services, said his agency has a policy of always having a backup ready when it launches a satellite, in case of failure. This policy cannot be implemented now, he said, because of the budget cuts. He told the subcommittee they are concerned, recalling that one NOAA weather satellite failed after two weeks in orbit.

NOAA and DOD are jointly developing and launching the NPOESS satellites in a collaborative effort to save money. Air Force Under Secretary Peter Teets testified that the nation's "unparalleled ability to exploit weather and environmental data gathered from space" is critical to the success of military operations.

Nonetheless, the Air Force budget was cut at the last minute in February, with little warning to NOAA. Teets acknowledged that the budget change "was not as fully coordinated as I would have liked for it to be."

Teets also said the risk to DOD weather forecasting is less than the risk facing NOAA because DOD has more satellites to launch in its program. "In my own view," he said, "we are taking a reasonable level of risk." Teets said, however, "I don't think we can afford another schedule slip."

The $7 billion NPOESS program will provide 22 times as much weather data as DOD now receives from satellites, he added.

Wes Bush, president of Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Space Technology unit, the prime contractor for NPOESS, testified that launch plan revisions have taken six months and cost the government nearly $11 million, because of the proposed budget cuts. Layoffs have drained some expertise from the program, he added.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), the subcommittee chairman, and Rep. Mark Udall, the ranking Democrat from Colorado, expressed concern about the delay. Ehlers raised the possibility of congressional action to restore the cuts.

But two other Republicans, Reps. Nick Smith of Michigan and Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota, said they were more worried about the federal budget deficit than a possible loss of weather data. "Seven billion dollars is still a lot of money," Gutknecht said.

Ehlers indicated that he would closely watch the NPOESS program in coming weeks. Northrop Grumman is supposed to submit its revised project plan in August.

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