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“Snake bit”: House Science Committee Reviews Troubled Weather Satellite Program

Richard M. Jones
Number 133 - November 7, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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NASA’s successful launch of a next generation Earth-observing satellite late last month is a significant milestone in a program to replace America’s aging system of weather satellites.  But there are major problems that continue to face this program that were discussed at a joint hearing by two subcommittees of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee earlier this fall.

“This remains a snake bit program” said Brad Miller (D-NC), who is Ranking Member on the Energy and Environment Subcommittee.  As Paul Broun (R-GA), Chairman of the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee stated, “In the past, the program was troubled by inter-agency bickering, overly optimistic cost estimates, lax oversight, and technical complexity.”  He later explained, “Multiple Administrations and Congresses controlled by Republicans and Democrats, numerous contractors, and multiple agencies all had a hand in this program.”

Broun and Miller were referring to the Joint Polar Satellite System or JPSS, a system of two next generation polar-orbiting satellites.  More than $6 billion has been spent on this and a previous much-delayed program.  Sensors on the JPSS satellites will provide vital data that is the backbone of weather forecasting and predictions of up to three years.  Sectors and activities using this kind of data include aviation, emergency preparedness, agriculture, energy, marine operations, and national security and defense. 

The hearing provided both good news and bad news.  David Powner, a senior official of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that a new joint program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA has made “solid progress.”  He reported a higher level of confidence in the management of the program than was found in previous GAO investigations, and some optimism that the JPSS satellites will be launched in late 2016 and 2021.  The satellite launched successfully last month was intended as a testing platform for the verification of new sensors, and as such, has a shorter life span.

Three major issues were raised at this hearing.  The first is that an updated cost and functionality baseline for the new program has not been issued, and is not expected for several months.  The second is the historical underfunding of the program.  Both the House and Senate FY 2012 appropriations bills recommend funding for the program that is as much as $168.7 million below the request.  Assistant Secretary of Commerce and NOAA Deputy Director Kathryn Sullivan testified “The largest risk to achieving success of the JPSS program of record remains the lack of adequate, stable, and timely funding.”  Finally, because of the delay and underfunding of the program in the last fiscal year, Sullivan said “NOAA is facing a near 100 percent chance of a data gap” resulting in degraded weather forecasts.   GAO predicts this data gap, if the recently launched test-bed satellite performs as expected, and if the first JPSS satellite is launched on time, of at least six months, beginning toward the end of calendar year 2016. 

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics