NOAA Seeks Input on Partnering with the Commercial Space Community

A recently released draft NOAA Commercial Space Policy, labeled “predecisional,” uses the National Space Policy of June 28, 2010, as the foundation for a four-part commercial program that would include data buy, hosted payloads, rideshares, and launch services. NOAA is requesting input from various sources on the policy in the form of an RFI, with responses due back from industry today, 10/1.

The policy draft comes on the heels of a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a member of the House Armed Services and Science, Space and Technology committees, that would recommend that NOAA turn to commercial sources for help in obtaining its weather data, much as the Department of Defense does with its communications satellite needs. Called the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2014, the measure passed in the House, but was never considered in the Senate.

NOAA’s draft policy also follows a January 15 Government Accountability Office report acknowledging that the agency’s two polar-orbiting satellites are aging. Those satellites circle the globe 14 times a day from an altitude of 540 miles, viewing every part of the planet twice daily to provide the data used in longer-term weather modeling. That data, which also includes input from Europe’s Meteorological Operational (METOP) satellite and from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, guarantees that information used in forecasting models is never more than six hours old.

But the useful life of one of NOAA’s polar-orbiting satellites is due to end in 2016. While NOAA declares it has ways to continue forecasting through other means until a replacement satellite is launched in 2017, the GAO reports include scenarios in which the gap in data lasts anywhere from 3 to 68 months. Included in those scenarios is the likelihood that because of in-orbit testing and other issues, the new satellite is not likely to be fully operational for a year after launch.

For instance, without polar-orbiting data, warnings of incoming Hurricane Sandy in 2012 would not have been available to citizens in New York and New Jersey.

Though the NOAA policy draft does not mention the possible loss of polar-orbit weather data, the draft does acknowledge the potential benefit of pursuing “opportunities to transfer routine, operational space functions to the commercial space sector”, “where beneficial and cost-effective” and to “develop governmental space systems only when it is in the national interest and there is no suitable, cost-effective commercial service or system that is or will be available.”

NOAA has struggled to get the funding it requested through recent Congressional budget cycles and faces another cut in 2016. Hosted payloads are one way to mitigate some of that loss. By sending instruments aloft in ride-sharing arrangements aboard commercial satellites, the cost to the agency of data-collection sensors could be reduced and opportunities to launch more weather sensors increased. About 20 “rides” are available annually in an arrangement that is already being considered by the DoD, among other agencies.

In fact, the GAO report lists 40 potential remedies for mitigating the potential data gap, with 14 of those remedies linked directly to the commercial satellite community.

While this breaks with standard operating procedure for NOAA, the agency would be no less in control of the data it receives, and could tie data quality levels to commercial contracts.

We hope that NOAA’s truly intends to make more room for commercial involvement, and view the RFI as an encouraging step. There are voices calling for NOAA to move faster. Rep. Bridenstine and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) sent a letter to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan on September 26th expressing concern that NOAA has not drafted data standards commercial companies must meet before they can sell to the government.

Hopefully input on the draft policy will be followed by adoption of the policy. Both moves should come as soon as possible to get programs rolling toward remedies of future data gaps. More important, the policy will foster a longer-range, smoother-running plan allowing commercial partners to help NOAA accomplish its important mission.