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The National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) is responsible for operating the nation’s system of weather satellites. Part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NESDIS launches and controls satellites and collects data transmitted back to ground stations. This information is used by scientists, climatologists and local weather forecasters.


The first US weather satellite was developed by the Department of Defense (DoD) in the late 1950s. Created to study meteorological events, TIROS, or Television Infrared Observation Satellite, was transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1959. DoD continued developing its own weather satellite system which eventually evolved into the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP).


In 1960, NASA launched the second TIROS (TIROS-1) with a mission to continuously orbit the poles. TIROS-1 provided forecasters with the first view of cloud patterns over North America. TIROS-1 operations were later turned over to the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA).
ESSA managed additional polar-orbiting research satellites that were launched during the 1960s. With each new satellite, new equipment was developed and tested, including optical lenses and transmission techniques. TIROS-8 tested an Automatic Picture Transmission system that directly relayed imagery to stations on the ground. TIROS-9 gave scientists the first complete daily coverage of the earth during day time. In 1965, the Nimbus-1 satellite carried an infrared sensor that allowed scientists to observe the first nighttime images from space.
The first operational weather satellite system was launched in 1966 with the ESSA-1 and ESSA-2 satellites. The ESSA program provided cloud-cover photography to the American National Meteorological Center. Over a period of almost four years, ESSA satellites transmitted thousands of images back to Earth, enabling predictions of weather patterns, including hurricanes. Because a rapid advances in satellite technology, the ESSA program, which would include nine satellites, only lasted six years before being replaced by a more advanced TIROS system.
In 1970, the Nixon administration decided to establish a new agency to oversee the country’s weather satellites in an effort to learn more about the way oceans and the atmosphere function. ESSA was replaced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA originally consisted of six divisions, two of which managed weather satellites and the collection of data sent back by the satellites: the National Environmental Satellite Service and the Environmental Data Service.
In 1972, NOAA launched the Improved TIROS Operational System (ITOS) which proved superior to the ESSA satellites. ITOS provided day and night viewing of Earth cloud coverage, and simultaneous broadcasts of data and data storage for later playback by ground observers. ITOS also measured snow, ice and sea surfaces and gathered temperature and moisture profiles daily. Later ITOS satellites were able to provide global daytime and nighttime real-time cloud cover data.
The early 1970s also witnessed an important development in satellite technology with the launch of the precursor to the geo-stationary satellite. The Applications Technology Satellite (ATS) orbited above the equator at a “medium” altitude of 22,235 miles. At lower altitudes, satellites had to orbit the Earth more than once per day and thus did not “hover” over the same area of the Earth’s surface all the time. But ATS was able to maintain the same position in orbit and keep continuous watch over Western Hemisphere weather.
The success of ATS for weather research led NASA and NOAA to collaborate on the development and launch of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program in the mid 1970s. By 1980, the fourth GOES satellite, GOES-4, provided scientists with continuous temperature and moisture data and allowed “frame-to-frame” cloud movement observation for wind speed, direction and a better understanding of atmospheric circulation patterns. That same year, NOAA decided to consolidate the responsibilities of the National Environmental Satellite Service and the Environmental Data Service into the newly formed National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS).
NESDIS has continued to manage the GOES system until the present. These satellites observe 60% of the Earth, measuring the planet’s atmosphere, surface, cloud cover and the solar and space environments. The eastern GOES satellite is positioned to provide the best view from near Western Africa to beyond the central part of the United States, and the western satellite provides coverage from the center of the United States to beyond Hawaii. Together, these satellites provide NESDIS with a complete, continuous view of the United States.
NESDIS also managed another satellite system, the Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (POES), the modern-day equivalent of the TIROS. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, efforts to reduce government spending prompted a re-examination of weather satellite programs managed by different agencies. In addition to NESDIS’s polar-orbiting satellites, the Pentagon still had its meteorological satellite system, DMSP. Following on the recommendations by a 1992 National Space Council study, NESDIS’s parent agency, NOAA, decided to combine POES with DoD’s system and manage it together along with NASA, creating the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOES).
Following the establishment of NPOES, officials decided in the 1990s to embark on a program to upgrade the satellites used for the newly integrated system. That effort has experienced delays and cost overruns, pushing back its launch to 2010 (see Controversies).

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS)


What it Does  

Located within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) operates the nation’s system of weather satellites. NESDIS launches and controls satellites and collects data transmitted back to ground stations. It manages the processing, distribution, and archiving of satellite data to make it available to researchers, planners, weather forecasters, the general public and others.


NESDIS operates two types of satellite systems. One is a polar-orbiting environmental satellite (POES) and the other is a geostationary operational environmental satellite (GOES). Polar satellites are spacecraft that follow a nearly polar orbit of the Earth. A satellite in a polar orbit passes above (or nearly above) both the North and South Poles on each revolution around Earth. Because of this orbit, these satellites are able to collect global data on a daily basis for a variety of land, ocean, and atmospheric applications. Geostationary satellites provide the kind of continuous monitoring necessary for intensive data analysis. They circle the Earth in a geosynchronous orbit, which means they orbit the equator at the same speed as the Earth’s rotation, allowing them to “hover” continuously over one position on the Earth’s surface.
NESDIS operates 13 centers or offices to carry out its myriad functions. They are:
National Climatic Data Center: NCDC maintains the world’s largest active archive of weather data. The center produces climate publications and responds to data requests from all over the world. NCDC operates the World Data Center for Meteorology which is co-located at NCDC in Asheville, NC, and the World Data Center for Paleoclimatology in Boulder, CO. NCDC provides support to the nation’s six regional climate centers and state climatologists located throughout the US.
National Geophysical Data Center: NGDC, located in Boulder, Colorado, maintains hundreds of databases that house geophysical information about the earth, marine and solar-terrestrial environments, as well as earth observations from space. The information that NGDC manages is available to private industry, universities and other educational facilities, research organizations, federal, state and local governments, foreign governments, industry, academia publishers, the media and the general public.
National Oceanographic Data Center: NODC stores and disseminates global oceanographic data through its Ocean Archive System. It preserves historical records of the Earth’s changing environment for ocean climate research and other applications. NODC is made up of the Oceanographic Data Center, National Coastal Data Development Center, World Data Center for Oceanography and the NOAA Central Library.
National Coastal Data Development Center: NCDDC collects a variety of data about the country’s coastal ecosystems. The center maintains a searchable catalog and conducts other activities to make its information available to interested parties.
Office of Systems Development: OSD manages the geostationary and polar-orbiting environmental satellite programs. OSD does everything from provide the spacecraft for launching satellites to maintaining the ground systems necessary to receive data from orbiting satellites.
Office of Satellite Operations: Once launched into orbit, NOAA satellites are controlled and managed by the Office of Satellite Operations. The office has operational responsibility for the Satellite Operations Control Center (SOCC) at Suitland, MD, and Command and Data Acquisition (CDA) facilities at Wallops, VA and Fairbanks, AK.
Office of Satellite Data Processing & Distribution: OSDPD is in charge of the central ground facilities that collect, process, and distribute satellite data. It consists of three major organizations: Satellite Services Division; Information Processing Division; and Direct Services Division.
STAR - Center for Satellite Applications and Research: STAR is the science arm of NESDIS that assesses current planetary conditions and predicts future changes to understand long-term changes in the environment.
NPOESS Integrated Program Office: This office oversees the operation of NPOESS, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which is used to monitor global environmental conditions and collect and disseminate data related to weather, atmosphere, oceans, land and near-space.
GOES-R Program Office: This office manages the latest geostationary satellite system under development. The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite Series-R is scheduled to launch in 2014.
International & Interagency Affairs Office: This office serves as a liaison for NESDIS operations with other federal agencies and foreign governments.
Office of Space Commercialization: This office focuses on several sectors of the space commerce industry, including satellite navigation, commercial remote sensing, space transportation and entrepreneurial activities or “New Space.” It also participates in governmental discussions of national space policy and other space-related issues.
Commercial Remote Sensing Compliance and Monitoring Program (CRSCMP): Under the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, no one in the US can operate any private remote sensing space system without a license. CRSCMP is responsible for reviewing and auditing license holders to make sure they are complying with federal law governing remote sensing. A key duty of this office is guaranteeing that companies that sell satellite imagery do not violate the 1996 Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, which seeks to protect the state of Israel from spying via satellites.

For objections to Kyl-Bingaman see

Revoke the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, Already


Where Does the Money Go  

NESDIS relies on aerospace corporations to provide the weather satellites used by the agency. These companies perform functions ranging from research-and-development to design to construction of the satellites.
Aerospace companies that have held contracts with NOAA, the parent agency of NESDIS, for weather satellite services include:
  • Lockheed Martin Corp.
  • Integral Systems, Inc
  • Honeywell
  • Spectrum Astro
  • Carr Astronautics
  • Orbital Sciences Corp.
  • Northrop Grumman
  • Boeing Satellite Systems
  • Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp.
  • Raytheon
  • Harris Corp.



NPOESS Delays Prompt Criticism
Since the 1990s, NESDIS has been trying to launch a new kind of satellite for use in the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System which NOAA and the Pentagon utilize to gather meteorological and other scientific data. That effort has been plagued by numerous problems and was reportedly three years behind schedule as of 2007. The primary contractor for the project is Northrop Grumman.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has issued several reports on NPOESS, reported in 2005 that the satellite program was $3 billion over budget. A study requested by the National Academy of Sciences reported many of the weather and climate instruments that the satellite was supposed to carry have been dropped to keep costs from further increasing.
The setbacks have important implications for American scientists trying to track climate changes, such as global warming. If delays continue, some experts warned of a “collapse” of the nation’s weather satellite system.
The GAO said the original projected cost of NPOESS was $6.5 billion, but that the price tag was likely to reach almost $10 billion by the time the satellite is scheduled to launch in 2010.

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform: National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System


Suggested Reforms  

Revoke the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, Already


Congressional Oversight  
Former Directors  

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Table of Contents

Founded: 1980
Annual Budget: $955.1 million
Employees: 831

National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service
Kicza, Mary Ellen
Assistant Administrator

 Mary Ellen Kicza has served as the assistant administrator for satellite and information services since November 2006. Kicza received her bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering from California State University, Sacramento and a master’s degree in business administration from the Florida Institute of Technology.

Kicza began her career as an engineer at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, CA, developing and testing software for Air Force satellite communications systems. In 1982, she joined NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where she served as a lead engineer, participating in the preparation of Atlas Centaur and Shuttle Centaur launch vehicles in support of NASA, DoD and NOAA satellites.
Kicza then moved onto other positions at NASA, serving as a program manager, deputy director of the Solar System Exploration Division, assistant associate administrator for space science, associate director for Goddard Space Flight Center, associate administrator for biological/physical research and the associate deputy administrator for systems integration.