Although weather forecasters brilliantly predicted Superstorm Sandy's impact days in advance—thereby saving many lives—in the near future forecasters could see their science take "a significant step back." The New Jersey Star-Ledger’s Stephen Stirling reports:
Satellites critical to the ability of meteorologists to build accurate long-term forecasts are expected to fail in 2016, while replacements won’t go online until the following year at the earliest. The gap in coverage will mean meteorologists will receive half the data they get now, giving a less clear picture of the globe and imperiling their ability to predict the weather.
Experimental models demonstrate how critical the data provided by these satellites is. European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts researcher Tom McNally said:
When we deliberately withheld the (data) from our system, very small errors developed in the North Pacific, which then amplified 5 days later to produce a very different environment over the northeast seaboard. The result was that the sudden left turn of Sandy was not predicted at all.
Why are we in this predicament? Incredible incompetence at the federal agencies in charge:
[Satellite failure] didn’t have to happen, but it likely will, federal officials say, because cost overruns, bungled management and technical challenges at federal agencies have left an aging satellite fleet with no immediate replacement.
An outside review team, in a scathing report, found that within the government’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)—the $12.9 billion program charged with getting the new generation of weather satellites into operation—“the goal of mission/program success was at times forgotten.”
Such loss of focus is something competing, profit-driven private companies could ill afford, which is one reason why the weather satellite program should be auctioned off to profit-seeking entrepreneurs and investors. (Space entrepreneurs and investors, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, already exist. The JPSS is operated within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which is part of the United States Space Program. Its mission is, in part, to “foster the conditions for the economic growth and technological advancement of the U.S. commercial space industry.”)
More fundamentally, the JPSS program contradicts the only proper function of government—the protection of individual rights. Individuals have a right to decide how to spend and invest their own earnings—whether in weather forecasting systems or health insurance policies or hotdogs—and only a free market, governed by a rights-protecting government protects that right.
The space program has achieved some laudable successes, and there are many talented people working in it. But for the rights-oriented reasons cited above, as well as the proven ability of free markets to foster productive excellence, it’s past time we began privatizing the non-defense elements of the space program. Considering the critical, life-saving necessity of weather satellites, auctioning off of the wasteful JPSS program is a good place to start.
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Image: Wikimedia Commons