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The Future of NPOESS: Results of the Nunn-McCurdy Review of NOAA’s Weather Satellite Program

Thursday, June 8, 2006 - 12:00am
Washington, D.C.

Opening Statement By Hon. Bart Gordon

Rep. Bart Gordon, Ranking Democratic MemberWe are here this afternoon to take testimony on the plan for moving the NPOESS program forward.

The Nunn-McCurdy review is complete, but there is still much to do before this plan is solidified and implemented.  I expect this is the first in a series of hearings the Committee will hold on the new program.

I don’t want to start off with a confrontational tone this afternoon, but I want to be clear about what I need to have confidence in this plan – I need information.

At this point, I have only a bare-bones, heavily-censored description of the redesigned polar satellite program.  That is simply not sufficient.

What do I know based on what has been shared?  I know that the best case interpretation of this plan is that for more than $4 billion above the original cost estimate, we are on a path to purchase four satellites instead of six, with fewer instruments and reduced capability.

Now that may be the best that can be done.  Perhaps this plan may, in fact, deliver us the best combination of capabilities at the lowest cost on a schedule that limits the degradation in weather forecasting ability.

However, I cannot evaluate the proposed plan without much more documentation to explain this choice and the annual budget estimates that flow from the proposed baseline.

Additionally, we really need to understand not just the annual budget estimates, but also how reliable those estimates are.  How much budgetary risk is attached to this plan?  Right now, no one in this room can answer that question – or at least none of the witnesses knew the answer as recently as yesterday.

This Committee has been told many things about this program over the years.  For example, we were told:

  • That the program will cost $6.8 billion for six satellites with thirteen sensors.
  • That the technical problems are manageable.
  • That there is no delay in the schedule for the launch of the first satellite.
  • That the cost overruns will not trigger the Nunn-McCurdy law’s review provisions.

I could go on, but I think I have made my point.  I do not believe that any of our witnesses have come here today to mislead this Committee.  But I simply cannot endorse this program on the basis of your assurances alone.

I should add that Members and staff have had briefings by officials from DOD, NOAA and NASA, but more often than not the officials could not answer our questions.

In those meetings we have asserted our desire to see the underlying documents that lead to this Nunn-McCurdy decision.  No documents have been made available to us.  The Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions, Mr. Kreig, is said to have those documents and control them.  He has to give his blessing before the Committee can have them.  He was invited to testify, but is supposed to be on travel.

Apparently, there are no phones where he is at the moment so the Department of Defense could not get approval to provide the Committee with the documents we need.  I hope the Chairman knows how much support he will get from me in the effort to get the Nunn-McCurdy decision package for our review.

Congress has a constitutional responsibility to oversee the programs that we authorize and fund.  I would not be fulfilling my responsibility if I blindly accept the program as offered.

I want to see documentation that confirms the validity of this choice.

I want to see annual estimates of the budgets that are associated with the estimate of the proposed $11.5 billion acquisition.

I want to understand what level of risk attaches both to the plan to maintain weather data continuity and to the cost estimates of this program.

I hope that we can go forward in a cooperative partnership to deliver this important satellite system to the nation.  Thank you.

Download the opening statement text.

Opening Statement By Hon. David Wu

Rep. David Wu, Ranking Democratic Member, Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and StandardsNormally, Mr. Chairman, I would thank you for calling these hearings.  However, I am concerned that this hearing may be premature.

Neither the Members nor the staff has received sufficient, substantive materials on the Nunn-McCurdy decision that would allow us to exercise real oversight: to do our job and be accountable for taxpayer dollars.  The result is that the witnesses before us today can pretty much tell us anything they want and we can’t sort out the hard facts from the hopeful scenarios.

Administrator Lautenbacher was very generous with his time in meeting with me yesterday.  He briefed me at some length in an effort to reassure me that stretching the program out was a good thing and that this plan would not have any impact on weather forecasting abilities.

Perhaps those claims are true, if every element in the Nunn-McCurdy plan unfolds as hoped.  But there are enormous risks built into the Nunn-McCurdy plan.  For example, the plan assumes that the N-Prime satellite works as advertised.  Given this project's track record, no one can be certain how it will perform in orbit.

The plan also assumes that we will have 13 successful launches of 13 satellites constructed by four different agencies on schedule in each case.  Those 13 satellites all have to work as advertised for at least as long as planned.  If any of these variables comes up short, there will either be radical revisions required, a loss of capability, or a troubling gap in coverage.

Not only is risk associated with providing continuous weather satellite coverage, but risk also overshadows the cost assessment.  The Nunn-McCurdy plan says the base program should now cost $11.5 billion.  We do not know what level of confidence we should put in that number.  It seems to me that since we are canceling one of the two key instruments for weather forecasting and starting an entirely new acquisition, that perhaps the confidence boundaries on that item should be very low.  And even those items that are moving forward have had problems; problems that will need to be addressed and therefore, will cost money.

But that is the point.  Until we see more information on what the DOD Cost Accounting Improvement Group (CAIG) actually says on all these items, we don’t know how much confidence to put in the new bottom line number.  I would not be surprised if the costs climb again, though I am hopeful that the rate of growth will decline.

But even if costs don’t go up, it appears there are costs associated with this plan not included in the base program.  For example, to use European satellite data for real-time forecasting models, we need our own ground station downlink capability.  That too will cost money, but how much, we don't know.  No one has been able to tell us.

Another example.  Six instruments were dropped from the NPOESS program.  However, DOD has simply invited those who might have an interest in that data to step up to the plate and pay for the instruments themselves.  If, for example, Space Command decides they must have the SESS instrument and they put up the tens or even hundreds of millions that might cost, then it will fly.  But those dollars are not in the $11.5 billion base program, as reconstituted by the Nunn-McCurdy review.

My message is two-fold.  First, I want to see the documentation that led Undersecretary Kreig to certify this new version of the NPOESS program under Nunn-McCurdy.  Until I see that, and can consult with staff and outside experts, I don’t how to evaluate what we will hear today.  When we are dealing with a program that has overrun its budget from $6.8 billion to at least $11 billion, the time for wishful thinking should be behind us.

Second, we must find a way forward that maintains the quality and continuity of our weather forecasting system.  Billions of dollars of our nation's GDP are tied to those forecasts, and not only quality of life, but actual American lives can hang in the balance.  We can’t afford to get this wrong.

Download the opening statement text.



3 - Dr. Ronald Sega
Under Secretary of the Air Force Department of Defense Department of Defense
Download the Witness Testimony

1 - Hon. Conrad Lautenbacher
Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Department of Commerce Under Secretary of C
Download the Witness Testimony

2 - Dr. Michael Griffin
Administrator National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Download the Witness Testimony

Witness Panel
NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin
Air Force Under Secretary Ron Sega
Under Secretary
For information on the witnesses, use the links at left


Press Release

The House Science Committee today heard from agencies involved in the construction of a vital U.S. weather forecasting satellite that has fallen severely behind schedule and is vastly over budget.  This is not the first hearing the Committee has held on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program, and it certainly will not be the last.

Today’s topic: the findings of a mandated Federal review, known as a Nunn-McCurdy Review (10 U.S.C 2433), which kicked in last fall when the NPOESS project overran its budget by more than 25%.

Rep. Bart Gordon, Science Committee Ranking Democratic Member"The Nunn-McCurdy review is complete, but there is still much to do before this plan is solidified and implemented," said Science Committee Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN).  "I want to be clear about what I need to have confidence in this plan – I need more information than we’ve received today...."

Read the complete release »


Rep. David Wu meets Brigadier General Susan Mashiko, newly-appointed NPOESS Program Executive Officer
Rep. David Wu (D-OR), Ranking Member for the Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards, meets Air Force Brigadier General Susan Mashiko, the new NPOESS Program Executive Officer. Watching are Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD; left) and Air Force Under Secretary Ron Sega.
109th Congress