An Update on the Nation's Weather Satellite Program

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Publication date: 
20 July 2012

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.

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