NPOESS Program Deep in the Red
Public and private entities charged with the management of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) principal satellite program were called before the U.S. House Committee on Science today to explain why that project is grossly offline and billions over budget.
Witnesses, including the NOAA Administrator, the Undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force and the vice president of the primary project contractor - Northrop Grumman Space Technology - gave the Committee their perspective on the current state of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program.
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. The combination of two programs was intended as a cost-saver, but the opposite has proven true.
"None of us enjoy coming together to talk about a program that's in trouble, but good stewardship of taxpayer dollars is a responsibility I take seriously," stated Committee Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN). "Congress has a Constitutional duty to see that the funds we authorize are well spent and the laws we pass are faithfully executed. Our oversight powers exist to root out problems, and the NPOESS program certainly has problems."
What's at stake if NPOESS continues to flounder? The continuity of reliable weather forecasting is at stake - on the cusp of what forecasters predict to be volatile years ahead. NPOESS will provide access to more precise hurricane and severe weather warnings/information in addition to serving its role as a key supplier of weather information directly to military forces on the battlefield.
At present, the NPOESS program is behind schedule by at least one year and over budget by an estimated $2-3 billion dollars, with costs continuing to climb. Program expenses have risen from an estimated $6.5 billion in 2002 to a current estimate of $9.7 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Not only are cost overruns a concern to Science Democrats, but program leadership, continued launch delays and a lack of access to key program information are also troublesome. Ranking Member Gordon charged that NOAA Administrator Admiral Lautenbacher failed to report trouble that has long been evident.
“The difference between more money next year and no new money until FY2008 is, according to the Independent Team, a billion dollars. The taxpayer is ill served by limiting options to those that are convenient for this Administration," added Rep. Gordon at today's hearing.
Science staff and Committee Members met with the Admiral and NOAA officials in July of this year. At that time, NOAA assured its cooperation on information regarding the NPOESS program. Yet, document requests from the Committee to NOAA have not been fully honored and hard choices are still not being made.
“From its inception, oversight of this program has been conducted in a bipartisan – in fact, I would say, a non-partisan fashion. This Committee is interested in one outcome only - the timely deployment of a functioning weather satellite series at the least possible cost to the taxpayer. Right now, we appear to be on the wrong path to achieve that goal,” stated ETS Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. David Wu (D-OR).
"I urge NOAA - in the strongest possible terms - to look at options that will minimize the total program costs, deliver satellites in time to avoid data gaps, and that offer the least risk of additional 'surprises,'" urged Rep. Gordon. "If you are unwilling to do that, I think you have to explain to this Committee why the Administration prefers an approach that would cost the taxpayer a billion dollars more than other approaches and risks the continuity of vital weather forecasting data."