JPSS Problems Far From Over

JPSS Problems Far From Over

A year and a half after the Obama Administration’s disbandment of the tri-agency NPOESS weather satellite program into separate civil and military systems, the problems of future U.S. polar orbiting weather satellites are far from over. A political majority in the House that is skeptical of climate change and likely funding constraints have been added to the mix of issues that remain as NOAA (with NASA as its acquisition agent) and DOD go their own ways.

At yesterday’s joint hearing of the Oversight and Investigations (O&I) and Energy and Environment (E&E) Subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, the few members in attendance seemed to agree on one thing: NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program must succeed. O&I Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) called for full funding of the program after saying that “every American is impacted by this program, whether they know it or not.”

E&E Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) and O&I Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) agreed that “this is a project that needs to succeed.” The two disagreed, however, on the most critical issues facing JPSS. Although JPSS and its DOD cousin, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS), may be on surer footing than when the agencies were jointly trying to build NPOESS, funding shortfalls and a lack of defined baseline programs continue to be problems. (The Senate Appropriations Committee recently voted to kill the DWSS program and directed DOD to start all over again in defining its requirements.)

Miller identified the most critical issue for JPSS as the likely gap in coverage during the 2016-2017 time frame brought on by the “remarkably shortsighted” decision of congressional appropriators to not fully fund the program in FY2011. The “appropriations shortfall has ensured that a gap will happen,” he said. NOAA officials have warned Congress repeatedly that because it has only approximately half of the funding it needed in FY2011, there is a high probability of a gap in coverage when its existing satellites stop working before the first JPSS is launched.

Chairman Harris, however, was more concerned about the rising cost of the program in light of current budgetary constraints: “The most critical issue facing our nation today is out-of-control spending by the federal government.” He likened the JPSS satellites to new cars and asked Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Deputy Administrator of NOAA, whether leaving out the “bells and whistles” — in his analogy, the long range climate sensors – would bring the program back to cost and schedule. When Dr. Sullivan responded that the climate sensors had indeed already been removed in a previous reworking of JPSS, Harris said enthusiastically: “Good for you!”

Chairman Harris later questioned Dr. Sullivan about contingency plans in the event of a coverage gap and chastised her for the “glaring omission” in her testimony of not describing NOAA’s efforts to discuss options for obtaining weather data from private sector companies. Dr. Sullivan responded that NOAA has released several requests for information (RFI) to private companies on this issue, and has ongoing efforts to obtain data from other countries as part of its contingency efforts.

Measures to secure continuity of coverage in the event of a gap must be seriously explored, warned O&I Chairman Broun. He said he “very firmly” believes with “high certainty” that Congress will fund the government through Continuing Resolutions instead of regular appropriations bills for the remainder of the Congress. This, he said, would be a “huge” problem for the already schedule- and budget-constrained program.

A hearing summary will be available soon. A webcast of the hearing and press releases from the Republicans and Democrats on the committee are available on their respective sites.

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