NOAA satellite program will take a big budget cut

As NASA works towards launch the JPSS satellite on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration next September (delayed from this March), initiating the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites to replace the aging DMSP constellation, some bad news has come out of the White House: as the administration prepares its first budget request, NOAA is getting a 17% overall budget cut.

It hits some parts of NOAA harder than others.  The lion’s share comes from a 22% cut to the highly successful satellite program, which could make it impossible to complete the JPSS constellation (although NOAA has obviously made no decisions at this point).  Oceanic and Atmospheric Research will lose 26% of its budget.  Research programs looking into coastal management and estuary reserves will be shuttered entirely, as will the Sea Grant program which sponsored university oceanic and coastal research.  Only the fisheries department and the National Weather Service emerge relatively unscathed, with just a 5% cut each.

These numbers are not final, and should not be considered such until the budget is actually submitted.  Even then, it’s really only a request; Congress will make their own modifications before approving it.  But it is concerning.  JPSS is coming much later than it should have, thanks to the collapse of the NPOESS program that was meant to succeed the POES constellation, but which died and was replaced by JPSS and DWSS.  NPOESS was a NASA/NOAA-USAF collaboration; the successors were split, with the USAF taking DWSS.  DWSS has now also been cancelled, so JPSS is now our only hope of retaining any decent low-altitude weather satellite coverage without relying entirely on foreign powers.  The White House is urging NOAA (and others in the Commerce Department) to leverage commercial satellites, but the reality is that there are no commercial satellites that can do this mission to the level we have all come to expect, nor are there likely to be in the near future.

These cuts would come along with massive layoffs and closure of entire NOAA offices; therefore, it is quite possible that Congress will tweak the plan so it impacts their constituencies less, but we shall have to see.  The bottom line, though, is that weather and climate are important, and having as much up-to-date data as possible is vital to our economic and physical well-being, so that we can respond to changing weather conditions before they become catastrophes.  No matter how you feel about science or spaceflight, knowing when there’s a hurricane bearing down on you is a big deal.  We need these satellites.

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