Trump signs commercial weather satellite bill


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Capitalism in space: President Trump today signed the new law that strongly encourages NOAA to begin using privately acquired weather data.

Among the bill’s provisions is language formally authorizing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to purchase weather data from commercial satellite systems. The bill authorizes NOAA to spend $6 million a year in fiscal years 2017 through 2020 for a pilot program of data purchases to evaluate the effectiveness of commercial data to support weather forecasting.

NOAA has already started such a pilot program using $3 million appropriated to the agency in fiscal year 2016. In September 2016, NOAA awarded contracts to GeoOptics and Spire, with a combined value of a little more than $1 million, for GPS radio occultation data.

These are only baby steps. At this time NOAA’s bureaucracy views commercial space the same way that NASA did back in 2004: it is a threat and also incapable of doing the job. Since NOAA today, like NASA in 2004, has been unable to do the job very well itself, its ability to argue against private space is limited. Expect the pressure to build for NOAA to hand over more and more of its weather-gathering work to private companies.

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  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “These are only baby steps. At this time NOAA’s bureaucracy views commercial space the same way that NASA did back in 2004: it is a threat and also incapable of doing the job.

    NOAA is somewhat correct. Because few satellite operators have been hired to provide much weather data, NOAA’s satellites have most of the latest and most advanced instrumentation for collecting detailed, advanced data. In a way, this is a classic Catch 22: satellite operators cannot get investors to develop competitive instrumentation to NOAA’s instruments without first getting contracts, and the contracts were not forthcoming until the satellite operators have competitive instrumentation. As happened with NASA, over the past decade, it will take time for private commercial companies to prove that they can provide the same data at a reasonable price.

    NASA was somewhat correct in 2004. Up until then, private commercial companies were not doing very well at providing alternate launch capability. Orbital Science’s (privately developed) Pegasus rocket was developed with private funds, but it was not popular, launching only a few payloads in the previous couple of decades. Lockheed Martin’s (privately developed) Athena rocket was not finding many customers, either.

    By 2004, NASA’s experience with Lockheed Martin’s X-33 (intended to become VentureStar) and McDonell Douglas’s DC-X (Delta Clipper) were failures.
    Armadillo Aerospace and Kistler Aerospace were not getting very far, SpaceX was still in development phase for (privately developed) Falcon 1, and Orbital Sciences may not yet have started designing Antares.

    It wasn’t until after NASA committed to reduce competition with commercial space companies that these companies were finally able to start finding outside investors — although not all did find such funding. NASA’s commitment came in the form of the COTS program, to hire commercial launch vehicles and cargo spacecraft to resupply the ISS.

    NASA’s commitment allowed US companies the freedom to design and operate its rockets and spacecraft in their own ways, allowing for innovations that were stifled in the past. NASA’s commitment has encouraged many companies to form in order to bring new ideas to market.

    Competition from NASA and NOAA hindered private investment in commercial launch providers and commercial data providers until early in this century. Even Robert Truax was hindered in the early 1980s, because no one wanted to invest in a launch rocket that would compete with the spiffy, new Space Shuttle. NASA, at that time, was still seen as the leader in launch technology and capability.

    This isn’t just a sign of how badly government has squandered the capabilities of the US’s aerospace industry, but how it has also squandered the skills, talents, and innovations of those at NASA, too.

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