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Press Releases :: June 7, 2007

Committee Questions Lack of Action to Restore Climate Sensors to NPOESS Weather Satellite Program

(Washington, DC) The House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment continued oversight today on the unsettled National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). In conjunction with the hearing, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also released its latest report on the latest assessment of this critical weather monitoring platform.

“This is not the first hearing the Committee has held on NPOESS and I am confident in saying it will not be the last. This has been an area of strong bipartisan concern for several years,” said Subcommittee Chairman Nick Lampson (D-TX). “Today’s hearing marks the first time for the Committee to get a sense of how the post-Nunn-McCurdy NPOESS program is faring. The recertified program under Nunn-McCurdy now lacks most of the climate change sensors that were to fly on NPOESS and were to form the heart of our instrumentation to provide data for tracking global warming.”

“My concern is that the effort headed by OSTP, with analytical support from NASA and NOAA, is lagging the pace needed to make effective decisions. I think that without decisive action and leadership, we will lose continuity in the multi-decadal data sets that are central to our understanding of global warming. In fact, some breaches in data collection may be unavoidable at this point.“

For decades, the U.S. has maintained satellites in orbit, looking down at Earth and gathering information that allows us to track and forecast weather. The NPOESS program was initiated as a tri-agency effort (NOAA–DOD–NASA) during the Clinton Administration in 1994. This new polar satellite series was designed to replace two separate satellite series – POES and DMSP – in an effort to obtain key weather data used in forecasting models.

NPOESS is meant to provide accurate three-seven day weather forecasts; the forecasts Americans have come to rely on in making decisions involving public safety, commerce and everyday planning capacities. Without its completion, there will likely be a gap in accurate U.S. weather forecasting.

In 2000, the NPOESS program anticipated purchasing six satellites for $6.5 billion, with a first launch in 2008. Costs have since escalated dramatically and the expected date of first launch slipped to 2013. By November 2005, it became apparent NPOESS would overrun its cost estimates by at least 25%, triggering a so-called Nunn-McCurdy review by the Department of Defense.

The NPOESS Program was recertified on June 5, 2006, with some significant changes. Costs rose to $11.5 billion. Only four satellites will be built. A major sensor, the Conical Microwave Imaging Sounder (CMIS), was removed because it seemed unlikely that the technical issues in its design and construction could be overcome. And most importantly, to the ire of climate scientists and many Members of Congress, a decision was made to remove sensors focused on the study of Earth's climate. Without the climate sensors on NPOESS, some of the most basic climate data may be at risk.

The Committee's hearing in November 2005 on the NPOESS program examined in some depth the poor performance of NPOESS management levels. Part of the program change instituted by the Nunn-McCurdy process was the redesign of the management structure. For the moment, it appears that turmoil in the management suites is not a primary contributor to risk in the NPOESS program.

”At the moment, the NPOESS program does not appear to be losing further ground. According to GAO's report, the ground systems for NPOESS data handling are now running under their budget and they have achieved more than they had planned to accomplish at this point,” continued Lampson.

In their report released at today’s hearing, GAO focuses on the state of the NPOESS program as it starts to carry out the decisions made by the Nunn-McCurdy process. They conclude that “restructuring is well under way, and the program has made progress in establishing an effective management structure.” There has not been enough progress to show that the key technical risks which have bedeviled the program are being reduced, however. VIIRS flight hardware has yet to be built, and CMIS flight hardware suffered an unexpected failure in early testing.

GAO has already accepted a request from the Committee to continue its independent evaluation as execution of the restructured program advances.

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