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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Red tape, overruns ground satellites

By CHASE DAVIS


LOGAN, UTAH — In the high-tech satellite business, where billions flow to wealthy firms headquartered in sleek metropolitan office parks, it seems unlikely that one of the world's most sophisticated weather sensors would be built here, amid the craggy peaks of northern Utah.

Scientists say it has the power to predict tornadoes, enhance hurricane forecasts and help airlines save millions in expensive jet fuel, all by providing precise readings of the swirling winds and vapors that churn severe weather systems.

But instead of barreling through orbit more than 20,000 miles above Earth, this $100 million atmospheric camera, known as GIFTS, spent part of last summer tucked in the corner of a drab storeroom here, covered in tarp and blocking an emergency exit — a fact not overlooked by the local fire marshal, who ordered scientists to haul it someplace else.

For the sensor's creators, it has been a humbling anticlimax: Despite seven years of development and testing, millions in taxpayer dollars, and support from think tanks and governments around the world, GIFTS may never fly in space.

Instead, it provides a vivid if complex example of how bureaucracy, budget cuts and broken promises have driven many of the government's weather and climate satellites into costly and unprecedented decline.

According to congressional testimony and government officials and experts from around the world, the United States' network of weather and climate satellites is declining so severely that it may soon start losing critical data that could help predict severe storms like Hurricanes Ike and Gustav.

In the multibillion dollar arena of U.S. climate science, the GIFTS project was relatively small. But similar storylines have played out like bad sequels, as numerous satellites have been delayed, cancelled or held earthbound by cut budgets and cost overruns. Some that provide crucial information continue to operate years longer than intended, threatening to fail at any time.

"It's fair to say that the (earth) science situation is as bad as it's ever been in recent years," said Rick Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and co-chair of a government-sponsored study to determine the country's earth science priorities. "There are a lot of cheap words out there about how important science and technology are to the future of the U.S., but we're not getting the appropriations."

Congress hears dark report

The struggle has played out largely behind the scenes, in the arcane worlds of research laboratories and congressional hearings. At its center have been federal agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which fund much of the nation's climate science and weather research.

Records and interviews show that scientists and government officials have for years warned that cuts to research budgets at both agencies could imperil the nation's satellite systems.

Congress and the Bush Administration have done little in response — a condition intensified by mounting federal debt and overruns in key programs.

"We're looking at a bailout, the war in Iraq, and a deficit budget," said Eric Barron, former dean of the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences and now head of a Colorado-based climate research organization. "If anything, I think the science community is a little more nervous."

Testimony given to Congress by scientists has painted a dire picture.

A 2005 report by a government-commissioned panel of earth scientists warned Congress that the nation's network of Earth-observing satellites was "at risk of collapse."

In 2006, the testimony of former astronaut and retired Marine Corps Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. likened NASA's attempts to adequately support its myriad directives to "trying to fit 15 pounds of stuff into a 5-pound sack."

A 2007 report sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 40 percent of nation's more than 100 climate sensors could go dark by 2010 — not enough to blind forecasters, but enough to weaken the data used by researchers who rely on history to gauge trends.

Climate researchers — the scientists working to figure what effect global warming may one day have on Gulf Coast hurricanes, for example — count on regular, uninterrupted satellite readings to gauge whether the environment is changing. If a critical satellite fails, scientists will be left poorly prepared to predict events that could cause hurricanes and droughts.

Projects hit the wall

Many scientists agree that NASA, NOAA and other agencies are doing the best they can with the money they have been given, despite the costs and uncertainty of building cutting-edge satellite technology.

For example, the multibillion-dollar satellite system known as NPOESS has continued to progress, but some scientists worry that overruns on the project have forced NOAA to scale back other research programs, Barron and others said.

NPOESS and another large weather satellite project, GOES-R, will together cost more than $20 billion by some estimates. And according to federal audits, both are already years behind schedule and billions over budget.

Another widely publicized project known as DSCOVR, was scrapped in 2006 despite more than $100 million being spent to develop it. The satellite would have measured how well the Earth reflects the sun's rays. Its creator, Francisco Valero of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said he blames political infighting for its demise.

"We take for granted that we can now know the weather four or five days in advance," said retired National Weather Service Director Joe Friday, who now consults for the NPOESS program. "If we don't have those satellites, we'd barely be back to understanding what the weather will do two or three days from now."

NASA, which plays a leading role in building many of the country's weather and climate satellites, has trimmed tens of millions from its earth science programs since at least 2004, when the agency was charged with retiring the space shuttle and building a new set of space vehicles to return humans to the moon. President George Bush agreed to supplement that effort with billions in new funding.

But the money never came.

After years of complaints by scientists and policymakers, Congress and the White House this fall enacted a bill that could boost NASA's budget by about $3 billion next year, a significant increase for an agency with a current budget of $17 billion. Still, the money may come too late to save some projects — among them, the star-crossed satellite known as GIFTS.

A 10-year odyssey

GIFTS' journey from state-of-the-art storm-tracker to warehouse fire hazard began nearly a decade ago, in universities and offices from Langley, Va., to the sloping peaks of northeast Utah.

When it was approved in 1999, the project was hailed as experimental but revolutionary. The sensor was ambitious, but so was its price tag: more than $250 million, spread across four government agencies. Foremost among the investors was NASA, which committed roughly $100 million.

The GIFTS sensor was a cutting-edge marriage of new technology with a sensing technique conceptualized more than 100 years ago. The result would have been more rapid, detailed measurements of the environmental conditions that drive severe weather, leading to earlier warnings and more accurate forecasts.

The principal investigator of the project, Bill Smith, described the sensor as a "revolutionary" three-dimensional movie camera that would provide real-time data on wind, temperatures and vapors that could be fed into models that predict severe weather.

"It can see tornadoes forming a couple hours before you can even see them on radar," he said last summer. "It's the first of its kind."

The GIFTS instrument was widely seen as a tool that could advance modern weather science, perhaps becoming a fixture on future generations of weather satellites.

But before it could be launched, the program unraveled.

It started in 2002, when the Navy, which had agreed to handle the satellite's launch, pulled money from GIFTS in order to accelerate another satellite project, a spokesman said at the time. With millions already invested, NASA began looking for partner agencies to shoulder the launch burden, which by some estimates exceeded the cost of the sensor itself.

They came close, but never close enough.

Several foreign governments, including Russia, expressed interest, as did the influential World Meteorological Organization, but nobody could put up enough money to get the satellite ready for space. In 2005, an independent panel of scientists testified to Congress that NASA and NOAA should invest in completing the project, but neither agency acted upon the recommendation.

Among the most decisive words Smith received from NASA came in 2006, when he was forwarded a letter from space agency Administrator Michael Griffin to his counterparts in the Russian Federal Space Agency. It read, in part: ''Due to funding constraints, NASA does not intend to complete a flight-qualified instrument.''

So seven years after it began with so much promise and ambition, GIFTS was sealed in a nitrogen-filled capsule slightly smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle and placed in storage, where it has stayed as its creators have fought, so far in vain, to fly in space.

chase.davis@chron.com

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