Science Magazine reports reports a Senate subcommittee chaired by Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has approved a bill that would transfer responsibility of building four satellites from NOAA to NASA. The move would shift about $1.6 billion in funding from NOAA’s budget to NASA in fiscal year 2013.

“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,” Science Magazine wrote.

In a press release, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the subcommittee chairwoman, stressed these satellites are critical for weather forecasting but said historic cost overruns and schedule delays in NOAA’s satellite programs necessitate a change in management:

It doesn’t matter what agency buys the satellites. It matters that the procurement is managed frugally and gets us data and information we need. Unfortunately, the Committee has lost confidence in NOAA’s ability to control procurement costs or articulate reliable funding profiles. Therefore, we have taken the unprecedented step of transferring responsibility for building our Nation’s operational weather satellites from NOAA to NASA

Satellite program cost overruns are not unique to NOAA, Mikulski said, but the move “leverages NASA’s expertise in building Earth science satellites and managing satellite procurements.”

“While NASA missions have also experienced cost overruns and schedule slippages, NASA has been more responsive and competent in correcting these deficiencies,” Mikulski said.

The subcommittee estimates the move would result in $117 million in government savings in FY 2013.

The size of the satellite budget within NOAA compared to other programs has come under scrutiny recently. For example, CWG’s Steve Tracton noted NOAA’s FY2013 budget request of $2 billion for weather satellites is more than twice the entire National Weather Service.

Tracton wrote: “Is there something wrong with this picture of enormous investments for satellites at the expense of relatively miniscule costs of valuable components of NWS’s operational mission? In the opinion of many, including myself, the answer is a confident yes.”

At least some proposed cuts to the National Weather Service’s operations budget would be eliminated under this Senate subcommittee’s legislation:

The bill does not support proposed cuts to NOAA’s operations that would hurt local communities, such as eliminating local weather forecasting staff and reducing the U.S. Tsunami Warning Network. Instead, the committee finds financial savings by consolidating management offices and reducing government overhead.

NOAA declined to comment on this bill as it does not speak to proposed legislation.


Satellite funding cuts could hamper forecasting, meteorologists and federal officials say (August 21, 2011)

NOAA satellite system funded, but at what cost? Other important programs may suffer (December 8, 2011)

National Weather Service budget cuts misguided, misplaced (March 29, 2012)