GAO: "In Summary, NPOESS is a Program in Crisis"
WASHINGTON, D.C. - In testimony today at a House Science Committee hearing examining the ongoing problems of the National Polar-orbiting Observing Satellite System (NPOESS), the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Undersecretary of the Air Force said it now appears that NPOESS could be as much as $3 billion over budget and that it is not expected to be launched until 2012 - three years later than the most recent program plan.
NPOESS is a key satellite for developing three- to seven-day weather forecasts for civilian and military purposes. It is designed to replace existing, less sophisticated satellites that are expected to be beyond their useful lives over the next several years.
NOAA Administrator Vice-Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher (ret.) and Undersecretary of the Air Force Ronald Sega promised at the hearing to provide the Committee with fuller and more rapid information following repeated complaints from Members on both sides of the aisle that NOAA has withheld information in the past. Specifically, Lautenbacher and Sega pledged that they will quickly provide the Committee with the new cost and schedule estimates and policy options that they will be discussing at a meeting next Tuesday on the future of NPOESS.
The Committee also pressed repeatedly for NOAA and DOD to justify their decision not to seek additional funding in fiscal years 2006 and 2007, even though Northrop-Grumman - the prime contractor on the NPOESS program - testified that increased funds in those years would significantly reduce life cycle costs, help resolve looming technical problems sooner, decrease the risk of a gap in weather satellite coverage, and increase the chances that the NPOESS development program overall will be successful.
"NPOESS is an absolutely essential program for the safety and security of the United States," said Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) in his opening remarks. "Without polar satellites, we pretty much lose the ability to understand longer-term weather trends, and our knowledge of those trends can save lives. The specifics of NPOESS may be technical and abstruse, but this is a program that provides information that average Americans use in their daily lives - and information that may be needed to save their lives. This is not an abstract matter.
"You would think that, given how much is riding on NPOESS, that this would be an especially closely supervised, well managed program. You would think, given the cost and prominence of NPOESS, that this would be a program in which Congress was given clear, accurate and timely information to help keep the program adequately funded and on track.
"But none of this has been the case. It is now clear that, almost from the outset, decisions were made with too little analysis of the technical challenges involved in building NPOESS. It is clear that contracts were awarded at prices that did not take into account the technical risks the program faced. And it is clear that the program was inadequately supervised, allowing problems to fester and worsen before being addressed. What's not so clear is whether these inadequacies are behind us, and that's part of what we will focus on today."
Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), said, "The added cost of getting the NPOESS program back on track rapidly is minuscule compared to the damage and lives lost we would incur if we no longer can forecast severe weather, such as hurricanes, accurately."
At the Committee's request, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined the ongoing problems with the NPOESS program. David Powner, GAO's Director of Information Technology Management Issues, told the Committee, "In summary, NPOESS is a program in crisis." He added, "The current direction for the program is at a standstill, as options are being weighed to minimize cost overruns, schedule delays, and affects on users."
Powner further added, "Management problems at multiple levels - subcontractor, contractor, program office, and executive leadership - have contributed to these cost and schedule issues."
Dr. Alexis Livanos, President of Northrop Grumman Space Technology, assured the Committee that his company is making changes to help get the program back on track. "We are working diligently to put NPOESS on solid footing and have made organizational changes to further improve the performance of our instrument subcontractors," he said. Livanos told the Committee that these changes include ensuring higher levels of expertise for the management teams supervising subcontractors, replacement and reassignment of key personnel involved in the program's problems, altering chain of command structures and the flow of information, and increasing communication between Northrop Grumman and its subcontractors.
Chairman Boehlert's opening and closing statements are attached to this release.