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

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Publication date: 
7 November 2011

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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.