NPOESS/Nunn-McCurdy Findings Leave Unanswered Questions on the State of U.S. Weather Forecasting Satellites


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(Washington, DC)  The House Science Committee today heard from agencies involved in the construction of a vital U.S. weather forecasting satellite that has fallen severely behind schedule and is vastly over budget.  This is not the first hearing the Committee has held on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program, and it certainly will not be the last. 

Today's topic: the findings of a mandated federal review, known as a Nunn-McCurdy Review (10 U.S.C 2433), which kicked in last fall when the NPOESS project overran its budget by more than 25%. 

"The Nunn-McCurdy review is complete, but there is still much to do before this plan is solidified and implemented," said Science Committee Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN).  "I want to be clear about what I need to have confidence in this plan - I need more information than we've received today." 

Reviewers have decided to certify and continue forward with the NPOESS program with fewer satellites, fewer sensors and more money.  The original program baseline costs were $6.8 billion - completion costs today are estimated at $11.1 billion.  The original due date was 2009.  The satellite is now scheduled for launch in 2013 - potentially leading to a gap in U.S. weather forecasting data.

None of the witnesses at today's hearing were directly involved in the Nunn-McCurdy process.

"Today's hearing is premature. Neither the Members nor the staff has received sufficient, substantive materials on the Nunn-McCurdy decision that would allow us to exercise real oversight; to do our job and be accountable for tax-payer dollars. The result is that the witnesses before us today can pretty much tell us anything they want and we can't sort out the hard facts from the hopeful scenarios," added ETS Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. David Wu (D-OR).

Science Committee Democrats have been following NPOESS's progress for the past six years and lack of information has been a consistent problem.  Last month, in light of continued lack of program oversight and mounting problems, Reps. Gordon and Wu called on the President to replace NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher and Deputy Undersecretary for NOAA General John J. Kelly.

The NPOESS program was initiated as a tri-agency effort (NOAA - DOD - NASA) during the Clinton Administration in 1994.  This new polar satellite series was designed to replace two separate satellite series - POES and DMSP - in an effort to obtain key weather data used in forecasting models.  The combination of the civilian and defense programs together was intended as a cost-saver, but the opposite has proven true. 

"Until I am provided sufficient information, I can't trust that the budget and leadership problems of the past will go away," said Rep. Wu.  "We must find a way forward that maintains the quality and continuity of our weather forecasting system.  Billions of tax-payer dollars are tied to those forecasts, and not only quality of life, but actual American lives can hang in the balance.  We can't afford to get this wrong."

"I do not believe that any of our witnesses have come here today to mislead this Committee," continued Rep. Gordon.  "But I simply cannot endorse this program on the basis of their assurances alone.  Congress has a Constitutional responsibility to oversee the programs that we authorize and fund.  I would not be fulfilling my responsibility if I blindly accept the program as offered."  

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