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Two Polar Satellite Reports Echo Committee Concerns about Future of Weather Forecasting

Press Release

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Location: Washington, DC

Two recently released reports on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Joint Polar-Orbiting Satellite System (JPSS) highlight longstanding mismanagement and prioritization concerns raised by Committee Members. On September 21st, an Independent Review Team (IRT) hired by NOAA released recommendations on how the agency can address management shortcomings and better prioritize funding to minimize the risk of a looming satellite weather data gap. Similarly, on September 27th, the Department of Commerce Inspector General released an audit report highly critical of NOAA's continued inability to define basic cost and capability parameters for the nearly $13 billion satellite program.

Over the last decade, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has monitored the development of the Joint Polar Satellite System and its predecessor program, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which provide vital data to weather forecasters. At recent hearings, Committee Members expressed frustrations with:

NOAA's inability to provide cost, schedule, and performance baselines for the program;
The lack of a strategy to prevent or mitigate a potential gap in polar-orbiting satellite coverage; and
NOAA's priority of funding climate sensors rather than ensuring that the core weather mission is preserved.
At these hearings, NOAA consistently argued that its program baselines were sufficient; that it was doing everything possible to address the gap in coverage, and that its top priority was the weather mission. The IRT and IG reports raise questions about the validity of these assertions, and demonstrate clearly that more can be done.

"Cost overruns and launch delays have left the country facing a likely gap in key weather data," said Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD). "To ensure protection of life and property, it is imperative that NOAA works to minimize that gap by making weather forecasting data continuity its top priority. The IRT conclusion that NOAA continues to prioritize climate sensors over minimizing this gap is disturbing, and must be addressed."

Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) added, "While I applaud NOAA for initiating this IRT review on their own, I am troubled to learn that it does not have adequate plans to mitigate a gap in coverage, despite the pleading of the Committee to develop those contingencies."

Broun continued, "Without having firm cost, schedule and performance baselines for the program, the American people have no way of knowing what they are buying, or if NOAA is doing a good job acquiring it. The Department of Commerce Inspector General Report highlights what I have been saying for years."

IRT

The Independent Review Team, established by NOAA, found that NOAA is not doing enough to mitigate an impending gap in coverage, stating "[t]he IRT did not see adequate mitigation or contingency planning, and the lack of planning leads the IRT to believe that [the National Environmental satellite, Data, and Information Service] and the JPSS Program Office does not give sufficient priority to reducing these gaps."

In order to address this concern the IRT recommended that NOAA "[r]emove all non high-priority weather activities from the JPSS program;" that the "[p]rogram savings from these recommendations should be used to reduce programmatic gaps and to address and JPSS funding shortfalls;" and that "[a]lternative methods of obtaining polar weather data should be investigated, including looking at alternative architectures that NOAA could also implement."

In addition to the lack of a plan to address a gap in polar coverage, the IRT found a significant number of open high-level issues such as insufficient baseline definition of JPSS-2; the lack of a credible Independent Cost Estimate (ICE); that the oversight and decision process at NOAA and the Department of Commerce had become "dysfunctional;" and that functional organizations such as the Chief Information Officer and the Chief Financial Officer where "too involved in program execution with adverse effect."

Finally, the IRT found that JPSS "[r]equirements do not appear to have had a system analysis and cost validation; that the program does not have an effective requirements trade process that allows the program to respond to change; and recommended that the program adopt a governance model similar to GOES-R.

OIG Audit

A recent report from the Department of Commerce (DOC) Office of the Inspector General (OIG), titled Audit of the Joint Polar Satellite System: Continuing Progress in Establishing Capabilities, Schedules, and Costs Is Needed to Mitigate Data Gaps. This report builds upon their September, 2011 report titled, Challenges Must Be Met to Minimize Gaps in polar Environmental Satellite Data.

The recent DOC OIG report found that the JPSS "program's capabilities, schedule, and cost baselines remain uncertain," and that the "lack of technical (capabilities), schedule, and cost baselines leaves managers without adequate means to assess contractor and overall program performance." This has a real world impact as "NASA has reported that the late development of the requirements baseline is an issue that could impact launch readiness dates for both JPSS-1 and the free flyer satellites" according to the DOC OIG report. Similarly, the report also states that "NOAA has not articulated an acquisitions strategy for the JPSS-2 spacecraft, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 satellites (including instruments)…"

Finally, the DOC OIG audit states that "NOAA does not have a policy that ensures consistent and reliable cost estimating for its major systems acquisitions," which calls into question the adequacy of the Administration's self-imposed $12.9 billion cost-cap. The report continues by stating that, "[a]n independent cost estimate is needed to validate the revised estimate."


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