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Press Releases :: June 29, 2010

Debate Continues as Weather Satellite Program Splits in Two

(Washington, DC) – A hearing was held today before the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight to assess recent organizational changes at the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program. The hearing is the latest in a series, going back to 2003, investigating issues with the vital but perpetually troubled weather monitoring project, and coincides with the release of a new report on the matter from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  

“NPOESS suffered from major performance problems and schedule delays for the primary imaging instrument, and these spawned cost overruns. However, the real problem with the program was that it was crippled by a management structure that delayed decisions at critical moments,” said Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC).
NPOESS was established in 1994 to develop and launch weather satellites into polar orbits to provide accurate forecasts and address military and civilian weather tracking needs. Designed as a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the project has suffered from years of steadily rising cost estimates and launch delays, tied to a deadlocked tri-agency Executive Committee. Without its successful operation, there will likely be a gap in accurate U.S. weather forecasting.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), acting in response to calls for White House action from the Committee on Science and Technology, GAO and an independent review team, devoted six months to analyzing corrections for the program. In February, OSTP directed that the agencies dissolve the failed Executive Committee and the idea of a single satellite. Instead, satellites collecting early-morning observations would be developed and launched by DOD. NOAA and NASA would do the same to collect observations in the afternoon. NOAA would operate all the satellites while in orbit and manage the common data system.
Members and witnesses from GAO, OTSP, and NPOESS’s partner agencies discussed the effectiveness of the new restructuring and raised concerns about remaining obstacles. Questions from Members explored the need for continued cooperation to reduce risk, likely changes in the major NPOESS contract, assuring continued search-and-rescue support and the problems for the program if a continued resolution limits funding in the next fiscal year. Witnesses expanded on the findings of a GAO report released today, which cautions that, while the Administration's decision may have addressed concerns about ineffective program management, the new plan brings new risks to the fore. Program restructurings often take longer than agencies expect in the best of circumstances and therefore schedule slips remain a threat.
“OSTP has removed the block over which we've been stumbling for the past few years.  This does not guarantee success,” said Miller.  “There was a reason for having a single program in the first place, and splitting the program in two may simply create two new programs with the same problems.  There are plenty of reasons to keep attention fixed on these new programs.”
GAO also presented findings of a May 27 report, produced at the Committee on Science and Technology’s request. Since the 2006 decision to remove climate sensors and downgrade instruments needed to keep track of solar activity, the Committee has asked NOAA how it planned to avoid losing the capacity to collect these important measurements. GAO found in its work that there was no strategy to govern investments in these two classes of observations. OSTP Assistant Director Shere Abbott indicated to the Chairman that work is now underway to accomplish the President's goal of a strong earth observation network.
For more information on the Committee’s work on NPOESS, please visit the Committee’s website.

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