Capitalism in space? An article today in Space News, “NOAA to take first step toward a small satellite constellation”, describes at great length NOAA’s recent effort to rethink how it builds its weather satellites, shifting from large and expensive single satellites launched years apart to constellations of smallsats that provide more redundancy and are cheaper and easier to replace.
What the article misses, as does NOAA apparently, is that this shift should not be designed by NOAA at all. During the Trump administration there was pressure on this agency to do what NASA had, stop designing and building its satellites but instead become a customer that hires private satellite companies to do it instead.
Not much came of that pressure. NOAA hired one private company to study the idea of building a private satellite to observe the Sun. It also awarded three companies experimental contracts to provide NOAA weather data from already orbiting smallsats.
That was it. NOAA made no other attempts to encourage private companies to design and build weather satellites for it, even as it struggled to get its own satellites off the ground. The second new GOES satellite in a constellation of four for providing global weather coverage failed almost immediately after launch in 2018. Overall, that constellation is expected to cost $11 billion, $4 billion more than initially budgeted. And it is years behind schedule.
What the article above suggests is that, with the Trump administration gone, NOAA has now abandoned the effort to transition to privately-built weather satellites. Instead the article describes at great length the effort by NOAA to redesign its satellites from big, rare, and costly to small, frequent, and cheap.
This effort will fail. Government agencies like NOAA are incapable of accomplishing such a task. They do not think in terms of profit, and keeping costs down to maximize those profits. Instead, such government institutions see high costs as beneficial, as they pump more money into their operations.
Until elected officials force NOAA to change, it will not, and its weather satellites will continue to be late, expensive, and untrustworthy. Sadly, the elected officials we have today, especially in the Biden administration, are not going to do that. They are as satisfied with the present situation as NOAA is.
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