Democrats Demand Answers on NOAA Satellite Project

Press Release From: Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Democratic Caucus
Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2006


Billions Over Budget and Behind Schedule

Ranking Member Asks President to Weigh In On Nunn-McCurdy Process

(Washington, DC)  After numerous informal inquiries and more than one public hearing, House Science Committee Democrats today demanded the NOAA Administrator own up to the severe problems facing the agency's largest program - NPOESS.

"Despite repeated assurances from Admiral Lautenbacher and other NOAA officials that problems were being addressed, this program is in complete disarray," stated Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN).  "The cost overruns are enormous and NPOESS is far behind schedule.  We are facing the very real possibility that NOAA will not fulfill its mandate to maintain continuity of weather data from our polar satellites."

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System or NPOESS is the next generation of civilian/military weather forecasting satellites.  A tri-agency program (NOAA-DOD-NASA) initiated in 1994, NPOESS today is an estimated $7 billion over budget and at least three years behind its projected use date of 2009.

Science Democrats have closely monitored the program whose progress is key to the continuity of reliable three to seven-day weather forecasting.  As the long-range forecasts have become more reliable, individual citizens, emergency managers, and our commercial enterprises have come to depend upon the information provided by satellites like NPOESS to make decisions that involve public safety and commerce.

"What we have here today is a lack of leadership, candor, and accountability for taxpayer dollars. Admiral Lautenbacher claims that he and the Executive Committee have been aggressively managing NPOESS - the biggest acquisition at his Agency. However, looking at the facts, I question their competence. This may be as good as it gets with this particular team," added ETS Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. David Wu.

The hearing was called to coincide with the release today of a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce Inspector General (IG).  The IG reviewed the NPOESS contract and its management and concluded that NOAA leadership ignored the series of monthly reports showing ongoing cost and schedule problems with the program.  The IG also criticized NOAA for giving substantial award fees to the contractor (Northrup Grumman Space Technology) despite poor program performance.

At the hearing, Admiral Lautenbacher agreed that the NPOESS program has its problems.

"Obviously, you did not take adequate steps to address the recurring problems presented to you in the monthly reports of the Integrated Program Office manager.  I think the Inspector General's report very clearly confirms this assessment," Rep. Gordon told Admiral Lautenbacher.  "Admiral, things have got to change.  This program is too important to NOAA and the country for you not to be directly involved and invested in getting this program back on track." 

Mr. Johnnie Frazier, Commerce Department IG added, "The sad news here is that this is not an anomaly [across federal procurement programs]...Nothing replaces the importance of program managers staying on top of what's going on."

A separate review of the NPOESS program is also underway.  As required by the Nunn-McCurdy law (10 U.S.C 2433), the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is required to report to Congress in the coming days because the NPOESS program has cost overruns in excess of 25% of it original $6.8 billion budget.  The law requires that the DoD fully review the program and certify that it is essential to national security; no cheaper alternatives exist; revised program costs are reasonable; and the program's management structure is up to the task.

In a letter to the Administration today, Ranking Member Gordon urged the President to "engage the White House in the Nunn-McCurdy process to guarantee that a broad perspective on our nation's security is used by DOD in their review and certification process.  It is too late to do anything about the management failures that created this situation.  It is probably too late to act in a way that will eliminate data gaps for National Weather Service needs.  It is not too late to avoid compounding those mistakes by decisions that may lead to the collapse of the entire program, exacerbating the gaps we are likely to suffer."  The full text of Rep. Gordon's letter to President Bush can be read here.

"After their review, I hope DOD will not decide to withdraw from the program," concluded Rep. Gordon.  "The budget implications of that decision for NOAA would be extremely serious and I simply do not see how Americans could continue to count on the accurate weather forecasts we are used to without it." 

The Science Committee currently plans a June hearing regarding the ongoing Nunn-McCurdy review of NPOESS.

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