Udall: "The Space Environment Center's Work is Vital"
As the Sun bombarded Earth the last several days with high-energy particles released from gigantic solar flares, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center (SEC) kept a "weather eye" on the solar fireworks. Alerts issued by the Boulder, Colorado, forecasters were the prime source of information for communications and power companies working to avoid service disruptions. Firefighters in California were warned that radio communications might be interrupted. The crew aboard the International Space Station took shelter as their vehicle passed through the solar storms.
At a hearing today before the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards, Congressman Mark Udall (D-CO) said, "Space weather forecasting is no less essential than terrestrial weather forecasting. We have increased our reliance on satellites, air travel, and electric generation and transmission - all of which are vulnerable to space weather events - and the SEC ensures that these investments are protected. Given the huge investments that taxpayers have made in the technology to monitor space weather, it would be the height of folly to withdraw our support for the activities of the SEC."
Udall, the Subcommittee's ranking Democrat, said that "the Bush Administration's $8.3 million budget request for the SEC is a small insurance premium for multi-billion-dollar investments vulnerable to space weather events." The House version of the Commerce, Justice and State Appropriations bill cuts the President's budget request by 40 percent, while the Senate eliminates the center's funding altogether.
NASA Chief Scientist Dr. John Grunsfeld testified today that radiation monitoring equipment aboard the Space Station "was designed as a back-up to the radiation monitoring and forecasting data provided by SEC." As the Committee learned last week, the SEC's support is even more essential at this time because the failure of sensors called Tissue Equivalent Proportional Counters (TEPCs) in June 2002 has severely reduced the ability to monitor radiation on the Space Station. Difficulty in tracking the crew's radiation exposure contributed to the decision by Nitza Cintron, NASA's chief of space medicine, and William Langdoc, chief of NASA's Habitability and Environmental Factors Office, to initially dissent from certifying that the current Station crew was ready for launch.
The Space and Life Sciences Division Readiness Review for the launch of the current Station crew, held September 24, 2003, highlighted the "[p]otential that ground-tracked radiation data and forecasting from satellites will be reduced or eliminated in FY04 (NOAA)" as a reason for expediting installation of a new TEPC sensor aboard the Station.
Some lawmakers have suggested that SEC's operations should be moved to the military or NASA, but witnesses recommended against this. Colonel Charles L. Benson, Jr., Commander of the Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA), said the SEC's operations would be very difficult for the Air Force to reproduce: "The space weather research and technology transition expertise resident at SEC would take years to build at AFWA. There would be an immediate and severe impact on military operations if the SEC no longer existed." Dr. Grunsfeld testified to the unique skills and capabilities at the SEC, and stated, "It is not within NASA's mandate as a research and development agency to provide the operational forecasting services currently provided by the SEC. In addition, the technical capacity, budget and expertise required to perform this activity could not transition to NASA without impacting our other ongoing space flight operations and research."
NOAA's space weather work had a commercial focus from its start in 1965. Captain Hank Krakowski, Vice President - Corporate Safety, Quality Assurance and Security at United Airlines, testified today that the SEC's products allow the airline to mitigate any risks that solar storm activity might disrupt communications, navigation or the health of passengers and crewmembers. "We are concerned that a reduction in funding could damage this important source of real-time safety information for our airline. We are also concerned that transferring operation of the SEC to another federal agency could result in a disruption, degradation or filtering of critical information," said Krakowski. Dr. Robert Hedinger, Executive Vice President of Loral Skynet, a satellite operator, concluded his testimony by stating, "It is critical to the Commercial Satellite Industry for NOAA SEC to continue providing these services without disruption."
Udall concluded, "If the SEC was not already in existence, we would have to create it. It's clear that the proposed cuts in the Center's budget request are ill-advised. The Sun sent us a signal this week, one the conferees for the Commerce-State-Justice appropriations bill should heed."