Troubled Weather Satellite’s Future Uncertain, Witnesses Say

Sep 23, 2011
Troubled Weather Satellite’s Future Uncertain, Witnesses Say

Washington D.C. – Today in a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight (I&O) and the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment (E&E), Members reviewed the impact of the Administration’s decision to restructure a troubled weather satellite program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) formerly known as the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program, and now referred to as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program.  Polar-orbiting weather satellites are a fundamental aspect of our nation’s forecasting abilities. Today’s hearing was an attempt to better understand the cost, schedule, and performance capabilities associated with the new polar-orbiting weather satellite program.

“To date, the federal government has spent over $6 billion on the NPOESS and JPSS programs, and the only thing we have to show for it is a modified research satellite that hopefully will launch next month,” said I&O Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA)“In the past, the program was troubled by inter-agency bickering, overly optimistic cost estimates, lax oversight, and technical complexity.  More recently, the uncertain fiscal environment has also challenged the program.” 

The NPOESS program was originally envisioned to reduce duplication and save $1.3 billion dollars.  Initial estimates for that program came in at $6.5 billion for six satellites, operating in three orbits, carrying 13 instruments, with the first satellite launched around 2010.  The costs of the new JPSS are now more than double the costs of the original program and the expected launch date for the first satellite is late 2016 or early 2017. However, if you were to add the costs of the Department of Defense (DOD) and European portions of the system, which were originally parts of NPOESS, the costs would be much higher – roughly $17 billion when you add the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS), and well over $20 billion when you add the cost of what the Europeans spent on MetOp.

“The ability to do timely and accurate weather forecasting is not at question here, and should not be compromised,” said E&E Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD).  “However, given the number of problems this program has experienced, the time has come to talk about what is the best way for NOAA to obtain the necessary data to do these forecasts.  And by best way, I mean the most efficient and cost effective way.”

Mr. David Powner, Director of Information Technology Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said today that “it is still not clear what the programs will deliver, when, and at what cost.”  This is despite the fact that the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 requires both NASA and NOAA to provide program baselines.  NOAA contends that they cannot develop a credible baseline for costs and capabilities without a stable and predictable budget horizon.  On the other hand, Congress remains skeptical of entrusting the taxpayers money with a program that has proven to be a poor steward of scarce resources without having firm cost, schedule and performance metrics to hold the program accountable to.

Aside from cost, the schedules have been delayed, and gaps in data coverage are looming.  Testifying today, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and Deputy Administrator of NOAA, stated that the projected gap in services is due to “the lack of adequate, timely, and stable appropriated funds…” 

Chairman Broun said “If the program had actually delivered on its cost, schedule, and performance, we wouldn’t be in this position.” 

Multiple Administrations and Congresses controlled by both Republicans and Democrats, numerous contractors, and multiple agencies all had a hand in this program.  The new problems faced by this program are the result of a number of factors: a drastic reorganization, a scheduled ramp-up in development costs, and flat funding from Continuing Resolutions. 

The Science, Space, and Technology Committee has been consistent in both its support, and it’s oversight of NPOESS and JPSS.  This is evidenced by the Committee’s Views and Estimates that call for full funding of JPSS, and the fact that since 2003, the Committee has held eight hearings on NPOESS or JPSS.

The following witnesses testified today before the Committee:

The Honorable Kathryn Sullivan, Ph.D., Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and Deputy Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Mr. Christopher Scolese, Associate Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Mr. David A. Powner, Director, Information Technology Management Issues, Government Accountability Office