Prepared Statement by Rep. Nick Lampson - Hearing: Status Report on the NPOESS Weather Satellite Program


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Good afternoon, welcome to this hearing on the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). These satellites are the next generation of observational platforms that will allow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense to provide weather forecasting services. It is not too much to say that the United States cannot get along without them.

This is not the first hearing the Committee has held on NPOESS and I am confident in saying it will not be the last. This has been an area of strong bipartisan concern for several years. When I left Congress in January of 2005 - not by choice, of course - this Committee was already concerned about performance trends in the NPOESS program. The Government Accountability Office had reported to this Subcommittee in September 2004 that a significant increase in the cost estimate had occurred, there were technical problems with the instruments and there was strong evidence that there would be a half-billion-dollar cost overrun at the end of the program.

Just over a year later, Mr. Powner testified in a hearing here that cost and schedule trends had worsened and said the program was in crisis. Soon after that testimony, Congress received notification that there was good cause to believe NPOESS would exceed its acquisition baseline cost by more than the 25% needed to trigger a recertification of the program under the Nunn-McCurdy provisions in federal procurement law.

Today's hearing marks the first time for the Committee to get a sense of how the post-Nunn-McCurdy NPOESS program is fairing. Nunn-McCurdy decisions at the Department of Defense have established a track record of more expensive acquisitions for fewer satellites. Perhaps most critically, the recertified program now lacks most of the climate sensors that were to fly on NPOESS and were to form the heart of our instrumentation to provide data for tracking global warming.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy started an effort to deal with the climate sensors lost for NPOESS almost immediately after the announcement of the Nunn-McCurdy decision. Dr. John Marburger is joining us today to explain that process.

My concern is that the effort headed by OSTP, with analytical support from NASA and NOAA, is lagging the pace needed to make effective decisions. The directions to the agencies are to look at all options for every data need rather than a direction to identify money that could be used to fund the planned instruments that had been de-manifested. You can study that problem and all possible options for as long as you want, but at some point, the manifests for what will fly on the NPOESS satellites have to be finalized, and so decisions are not just due, I believe they are overdue.

I think that without decisive action and leadership, we will lose continuity in the multi-decadal data sets that are central to our understanding of global warming. In fact, some breaches in data collection may be unavoidable at this point. There was just time to add money into the 2008 budget request if the interagency exercise had been pushed harder last summer. Now, one year later, the problem is still under study and it may be that answers won't come in before the 2009 budget is finalized.

As to money, I think that NASA and NOAA may not be able to do what needs to be done without direct intervention from the White House to give them the added resources necessary to fund those instruments. The President just had another major address on climate change. Perhaps one step he could take towards showing other nations that this proposal is a serious one would be to identify funds to fly the climate sensors. We will also hear today from David Powner of GAO. Mr. Powner is a frequent witness before the Committee. His testimony today is less dramatic than at some prior appearances. At this moment in time, the NPOESS program does not appear to be losing further ground.

According to GAO's report, the ground systems for NPOESS data handling are now running under their budget and they have achieved more than they had planned to accomplish at this point. Such performances are so rare it may be that particular project manager deserves the Congressional Gold Medal.

Unfortunately, that performance is overshadowed by the continuing risks we see with the major instruments destined to fly on these satellites. Both the VIIRS and CrIS instruments still show significant engineering challenges. There is little doubt that the challenges can be overcome, but the risk attaches to how much time and money the fixes will cost.

There are still a lot of tests for NPOESS to get through, which means there are many opportunities for unexpected events to upset the program. So we have asked Mr. Powner to keep up the good work.

Air Force Brigadier General Susan Mashiko is also with us today. In the 20 months she has served as Program Executive Officer for NPOESS, she has restored a semblance of order to the management structure. Indeed, the announcement of her imminent rotation to another posting led GAO to recommend to the Air Force that she could not be spared just yet. I think the Air Force is going to ignore that advice, but it may be to the detriment of the program if solid management is not put in place immediately. NPOESS is not a program that can be allowed to drift along.

We are a year beyond the Nunn-McCurdy demanifesting of both climate science and space weather instruments and yet no decisions have been made on how to proceed.

We are a year beyond Nunn-McCurdy with the same instruments causing us some of the same concerns about risk.

General Mashiko is a month away from her transfer and no replacement has been named.

I think progress has been made in managing the downsized NPOESS program that the Department of Defense brought us, but not enough progress to reduce our concerns about the future for this satellite program or to satisfy our need to see our climate science efforts fully supported.

Thank you all for coming, and I recognize the Ranking Member, Mr. Inglis, for his opening remarks

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