GAO: Weather Satellite Data Gap Also Looms for GOES-R, JPSS Cost Estimate Higher Than Publicized

GAO: Weather Satellite Data Gap Also Looms for GOES-R, JPSS Cost Estimate Higher Than Publicized

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) told Congress yesterday that in addition to a possible gap in data from NOAA’s polar-orbiting weather satellites, a similar gap in data from its geostationary satellites could also occur.   It also told two House subcommittees that NOAA’s cost estimate for its new polar-orbiting satellites actually was $14.6 billion, not the $12.9 billion figure NOAA uses publicly.  That figure is a cap imposed by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and NOAA is taking action to reduce costs to meet that target.

NOAA operates weather satellites in polar orbits that circle the entire globe as well as in geostationary orbits that maintain a fixed position over the equator.  The current generations are called Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites (POES) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES).   NOAA was part of a tri-agency program to build new polar orbiting satellites called the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), but that program failed and NOAA is now embarked upon its own Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). NASA manages the acquisition of those satellites through a reimburseable arrangement with NOAA.  Separately, NOAA is developing a new generation of GOES satellites — the GOES-R series. 

GAO’s David Powner told two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that, overall, both of those weather satellite programs are doing better than in the past, but that does not mean they are trouble free.  The biggest surprise of the hearing was Powner’s statement that NOAA has only a 48 percent confidence level that GOES-R, the first of four satellites in the series, will meet its launch date in October 2015.  A potential delay in the shipment of the Geostationary Lightning Mapper was cited as one schedule risk factor.

Concern has been focused on a potential data gap for the polar orbiting satellites.   NOAA’s existing POES satellites already are getting old.   A NASA satellite, NPP Suomi, designed and built as a technology testbed for the NPOESS program, is being repurposed as an operational weather satellite to provide data between now and when the first JPSS is launched.  That is scheduled for the spring of 2017, but there is concern that it will not be on orbit with its instruments properly calibrated and validated before NPP Suomi ceases operations.  Powner said a 17-month data gap is a best case scenario if NPP Suomi lasts five years and JPSS-1 keeps its 2017 launch date.  

Powner also revealed at the hearing that NOAA’s actual cost estimate for JPSS was $14.6 billion, but OMB told NOAA it could only have $12.9 billion.  NOAA refers to that as a “cap” and it is $1 billion higher than what NOAA told Congress last year.  It includes sunk costs in NPOESS, two JPSS satellites, two additional small satellites for instruments that cannot be accommodated on JPSS, and operations through 2028.  NOAA explained earlier this year that the $1 billion increase is because it extended the operational period from 2024 to 2028, so the lifecycle cost estimate covers an additional four years of operations.

Stung by the NPOESS fiasco where years of cost overruns and schedule delays ultimately led the White House to kill the program in February 2010, Congress views this new $1 billion increase with alarm, however.  The Senate Appropriations Committee lambasted NOAA in its report (S. Rept. 112-158) on the FY2013 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill and called for the weather satellite programs to be transferred to NASA because of NOAA’s management shortcomings.  NOAA would still operate the satellites once in orbit, but NASA would otherwise be responsible for them.

NOAA’s Deputy Administrator Kathy Sullivan and NASA’s Marcus Watkins, Director of the Joint Agency Satellite Division, declined to tell the subcommittees what the Obama Administration’s position is on the Senate proposal.   Both insisted that the Administration is studying the implications and not yet ready to take a position.  Watkins’ division serves as the acquisition agent for NOAA’s satellites, managing the contracts for the satellites and associated launch vehicles.  NOAA reimburses NASA for those activities today, but under the Senate Appropriations Committee’s plan, NASA would be completely in charge and the money would be appropriated to NASA rather than NOAA.

Powner emphasized the $1.7 billion “funding gap” for JPSS between NOAA’s estimate of $14.6 billion and OMB’s cap of $12.9 billion.  A GAO report released simultaneously with the hearing discloses the options NOAA is considering to cope with that shortfall.  Sullivan said she has “high confidence” that the measures NOAA is taking to get down to the $12.9 billion figure will be successful, but that it also needs “very high and continued scrutiny.”

Sullivan and Watkins were asked about the potential impact on JPSS and GOES-R of a Continuing Resolution (CR) that goes beyond the first quarter of FY2013. Congress routinely passes CRs when it cannot complete action on the regular appropriations bills by the beginning of a fiscal year on October 1.  CRs generally hold agencies to their previous year funding levels.  Agencies have become accustomed to CRs for that last one-three months, but problems can develop if they last longer.   Sullivan and Watkins indicated that JPSS probably would be OK under even a long-term CR since the requested funding level for FY2013 is almost the same as what it received for FY2012 (just over $900 million).    GOES-R, however, needs a “bump” in FY2013 to begin acquiring a launch vehicle.  The GOES-R request for FY2013 is $802 million compared to the $616 million it received for FY2012.   If it is held at the FY2012 level,  there could be “severe negative impacts” to the program’s cost and schedule, Watkins said. 

A webcast of the hearing and prepared statements are available on the committee’s website

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