FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

An Update on the Nation's Weather Satellite Program

Aline D. McNaull
Number 101 - July 20, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight and the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a joint hearing on June 27 to examine the costs and performance capabilities of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Observational Environmental Satellite-R Series (GOES-R). 

A hearing charter, prepared by the Republican committee staff, provided background information about the satellite program:

Since the 1960s, the U.S. has operated two separate operational polar-orbiting meteorological satellite systems, the Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite (POES) managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites developed by the Air Force…. Currently, there is one operational POES satellite,… two operational DMSP satellites, and a European satellite.” 

In addition to polar-orbiting satellites, NOAA also operates Geostationary Observational Environmental Satellites (GOES)….   The GOES system operated by NOAA utilizes two satellites….  There has been a GOES satellite in orbit providing continuous coverage over the U.S. since 1976. Today, there are four GOES satellites in orbit – GOES-13 and GOES-15 are operational; GOES-14 is in orbit and available as a backup, while GOES-12 is nearing the end of its service life and is providing limited coverage to South America.…  The next-generation of GOES satellites, known as the GOES-R series, is currently under development. GOES-R is expected to significantly improve clarity and precision of environmental data and will be able to transmit that data at faster rates more frequently.”

“[The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s] announcement in February 2010 to split the NPOESS program included a new name for the program at NOAA, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). On March 12, 2010, OSTP issued a description of the implementation plan for the new program... The requirements for data to be collected did not change. NOAA will reimburse NASA to manage the JPSS program at the Goddard Space Flight Center.In 2010, NOAA estimated that the life cycle costs of the JPSS program would be approximately $11.9 billion.”

Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) opened the hearing expressing his frustration about the satellite program, a sentiment that was shared across the aisle.  In particular, Broun stated that the program “does not have a baseline for cost and schedule.”  He was also concerned about the Administration’s lifecycle cost cap for the JPSS program that is $1.7 billion lower than the cost estimate of the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  He noted that “the only option that NOAA may have to manage risk is to diminish capability” and pointed out that the impending gap in coverage would also limit schedule flexibility.  In addition, he raised the issue of the cost of the satellites since the program will now only be able to purchase three satellites that will only operate in one orbit, as opposed to the originally planned six that would have operated in three separate orbits.  Lastly, Broun also expressed concern regarding gaps in satellite coverage.

Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) also expressed concern about “the data gap that threatens our forecasting capabilities” and pointed to the “mismanagement and mistakes that have plagued the polar satellite program” as he echoed the frustration of other Members.  He expressed that “we need to take a hard look at the necessary funding levels and reserves required to keep overall costs down and projects on-time.”      

Ranking Member Paul Tonko (D-NY) wanted to “come away from this hearing with an understanding that there is solid planning going on to fill any data gaps” and wanted to know about remaining program risks and reasonable strategies to deal with the risks.  Regarding the progress of the satellite programs, he contended “it appears that nothing staff learned in preparing for this hearing and nothing in GAO’s testimony, lead us to condemn either program or to conclude that things are off the tracks again.”  However, the level of concern amongst Members remained high regarding prior problems of the weather satellite program.  Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) expressed his interest in seeking a new paradigm for procuring data for weather forecasting since he acknowledged that the current procurement process is not working. 

Kathryn Sullivan, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and Deputy Administrator of NOAA, highlighted three messages in her testimony.  The first was that NOAA satellite programs are critically important to reliable weather forecasts.  Secondly, “NOAA has stabilized the management structure, staffing, funding, requirements, and oversight of these programs leading to the completion of key program milestones.”  Lastly she emphasized that these programs “require stable budgets if they are to stay within their cost, schedule, and performance baselines.”

Sullivan stated that NOAA agreed with the GAO recommendation to use all available assets to help mitigate a potential gap in satellite coverage.  She added that the prime strategy to address this problem remains to “leverage any remaining capabilities of existing on-orbit assets from NOAA and to use our partnerships with international nations.”      

Marcus Watkins, Director of NASA’s Joint Agency Satellite Division, stated that “NOAA and NASA have established joint program management councils to oversee JPSS, and have integrated their decision-making process to efficiently and effectively manage this cooperative activity.”  He reported that the transition from the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) to the JPSS is going well and that “NASA, as NOAA’s acquisition agent, now manages all of the JPSS instruments, spacecraft, and ground system contracts.”  In addition, he provided the update that the “GOES-R Series Program of four geosynchronous satellites continues to make progress toward launching GOES-R, the first satellite of the series, in the October 2015 timeframe.”

David Powner, Director of Information Technology Management Issues at the GAO, recommended three areas that deserve congressional oversight.  The first focused on how NASA and NOAA operate the JPSS program within the Administration’s $12.9 billion life cycle cost cap that is $1.7 billion below a GAO cost estimate.  The second was to examine what will be the ride-share arrangement process for certain sensors that will be brought to space via foreign rockets.  The third issue was for Congress to provide guidance on how the satellite constellation of all three orbits will be effectively managed to ensure the acquisition of critical weather and climate data.  

Republican and Democratic Members questioned the witnesses regarding a clear plan to address the gap in satellite data.  Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) was interested in discussing the cost savings and the potential for success of the proposed transfer of the weather satellite program from NOAA to NASA.  Rep. Harris was interested in whether NOAA could pursue a program similar to NASA’s SpaceX to address the need for increased satellite coverage using private companies.  Sullivan responded by pointing out that there is a significant difference between the technical needs associated with weather forecasting and providing rides to space.    

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) asked the witnesses to comment on how a potential continuing resolution for the budget could impact the satellite programs.  Sullivan stated that the GOES-R program has a scheduled bump in funding for the coming year associated with a vehicle launch.  Were there to be a continuing budget resolution that only provides level funding, the launch schedule for that vehicle could be compromised which would impact the GOES-R program.  Such a continuing budget resolution would have less of an impact on the JPSS program since there are no plans for increases in funding in the near-term. 

Rep. Miller expressed surprise that Powner used phrases in his testimony like “good progress” and “solid development” since “in the past it is true that everything that could go wrong has.”  Democratic and Republican Members of the subcommittees seemed to share Rep. Miller’s hesitation to accept the positive reassurance from witnesses about the positive progress of the program since they have watched the program struggle in the past.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
amcnaull@aip.org
301-209-3094