Commerce IG Adds to Worries About NOAA's Satellite Management Abilities; Congress Reacts

Commerce IG Adds to Worries About NOAA's Satellite Management Abilities; Congress Reacts

The Department of Commerce (DoC) Inspector General (IG) added his voice last week to concerns about NOAA’s ability to successfully manage the acquisition of new weather satellites.  The Commerce IG report came one week after a report of an Independent Review Team (IRT) chaired by Tom Young that found that management of satellite programs by DoC and NOAA is “dysfunctional.”  Two top Republicans on the House committee that oversees NOAA’s satellite programs praised the reports today and reacted with concern.

NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — is part of the DoC.   The September 27 Commerce IG report looked only at NOAA’s new polar orbiting weather satellites, which include the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) now in development and operationalization of data from NASA’s Suomi-NPP satellite.   The latter was launched last year and will serve as a gap-filler between NOAA’s legacy Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES) and JPSS.

JPSS is NOAA’s replacement for the failed tri-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). Congressional skepticism about NOAA’s management abilities in the wake of NPOESS led the Senate Appropriations Committee to recommend in April that all of NOAA’s satellite programs be transferred to NASA, with NOAA responsible only for satellite operations once they were in orbit.  In addition to polar orbiting weather satellites, NOAA operates the geostationary GOES satellite series.   NASA is already the acquisition agent for NOAA’s satellites, but the Senate committee recommendation would give NASA more authority over the programs.

Aware of those concerns, NOAA established Tom Young’s IRT earlier this year to look at how the programs are managed by NOAA and its parent, DoC.   The Young IRT report pulled no punches, levying strong criticism at almost every aspect of how the programs are managed both by NOAA and the Department.   The message was heard, and two decision memoranda to implement the IRT recommendations were issued the same day the report was made public — one at the Deputy Secretary of Commerce level and one from the NOAA Administrator.

The Commerce IG report released last week similarly was met with a positive response from NOAA according to its authors: “In responding to the draft audit report, NOAA concurred with all of our recommendations.”

The Commerce IG found that NOAA’s efforts to operationalize the Suomi-NPP data to date “have had mixed results” and an “ongoing dispute over the management of calibration and validation of data records requires further attention.”  As for JPSS, the report made nine recommendations focusing on the need to provide sufficient resources and attention to finalizing requirements and system definition for the first two JPSS satellites and developing and sharing the acquisition strategy for the next two; quantifying cost savings while determining how to efficiently process environmental data records and determining whether an enterprise approach to data products could achieve economies of scale; permanently filling key management positions; improving cost estimating; and ensuring stakeholders are “sufficiently informed of unplanned schedule and capability trade-offs, if needed, to meet surges in effort necessary for launches.”

The report also concluded that a 10-16 month gap between operational data from Suomi-NPP and the first JPSS is to be expected.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), chair of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), chair of that committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, praised the Tom Young and Commerce IG reports.  They also expressed their frustration with NOAA for not providing cost, schedule and performance baselines, lacking a strategy to avoid a potential gap in polar-orbiting satellite operations, and placing priority on climate sensors rather than its core weather mission.



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