Senator Thune Queries NOAA on GOES and JPSS

Senator Thune Queries NOAA on GOES and JPSS

Sen. John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan yesterday demanding answers to a series of questions about NOAA’s two weather satellite programs, GOES and JPSS.  The questions stem from reports by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) over the past several years concerning NOAA’s management of the programs, especially what NOAA is doing to avoid gaps in weather satellite coverage. Thune chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which oversees the Department of Commerce, of which NOAA is part.

The heavily footnoted 7-page letter refers to multiple reviews of NOAA’s weather satellite programs by GAO and the Commerce OIG that raise questions about NOAA’s management of the complementary geostationary and polar orbiting weather satellite programs.  NOAA is getting ready to launch the first of the newest generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), GOES-R, and the first of the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites.  JPSS-1 and -2 will replace NOAA’s  existing Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites (POES) and a NASA technology demonstration environmental satellite, Suomi-NPP, that NOAA seconded into use as an operational weather satellite to avoid a gap in polar orbit weather satellite observations.

The first of the GOES-R series is currently scheduled for launch in November 2016 and the first JPSS satellite in March 2017. Those dates have repeatedly slipped.  The four-satellite GOES-R series will cost $10.9 billion.  The cost estimate for the two-satellite JPSS program is $11.3 billion, which includes about $4 billion in sunk costs in the predecessor NOAA-DOD-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operatonal Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program that was terminated in 2010.   NOAA is planning two more JPSS satellites in a separate Polar Follow On (PFO) program for launch in the mid-late 2020s.  More information on GOES-R, JPSS, and PFO is available in’s fact sheet on NOAA”s FY2017 budget request.

NOAA is responsible for defining requirements, funding, managing and operating GOES and JPSS, but uses NASA as its acquisition agent.  NASA contracts for and oversees the construction of the satellites and purchases launch services using funds transferred from NOAA.

Cost increases and schedule delays have characterized NOAA’s weather satellite programs for many years, hence the abundance of GAO and OIG reviews.  NOAA itself commissioned an Independent Review Team (IRT) led by retired aerospace industry executive Tom Young that was strongly critical of how the programs were managed.  A number of congressional hearings have been held, most recently on July 7 before a House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) subcommittee.

NPOESS was initiated in 1996 as an effort to merge NOAA’s civil and DOD’s military weather satellite requirements into a single program.  It was terminated by the Obama Administration in 2010 essentially because the agencies could not work together effectively, resulting in repeated cost overruns and schedule delays.  JPSS is NOAA’s replacement for the civil aspects of NPOESS.  DOD continues to struggle with how to meet its own weather satellite needs, which are outside the purview of Thune’s committee.

Thune’s 11 questions focus on how NOAA makes decisions about what satellites to build and when to launch them in order to ensure there is no gap in coverage.  He notes that NOAA builds multiple satellites using the same design — clones — which “should provide consistency and dependability and control costs,” but NOAA’s track record “does not inspire confidence.”  He explains that “[i]n order to boost taxpayer confidence, greater cost and schedule transparency is essential.”

Decisions on when to launch the new satellites depend in part on NOAA’s estimates of the lifetime of existing satellites and several of Thune’s questions focus on how NOAA makes those calculations.   GAO’s David Powner was highly critical of NOAA’s lifetime estimating practices at the July 7 House hearing.  Those estimates are displayed in NOAA “flyout charts” that show timelines for launch, on-orbit storage and operational use of its satellites that can signal if there will be gaps in coverage.  At the hearing, Powner said NOAA’s most recent flyout charts are “just another instance where NOAA’s charts and satellite life spans have been misleading to the Congress.”  GAO repeatedly warns about potential gaps in weather satellite coverage. NOAA issued such warnings when it was fighting for JPSS funding earlier this decade, but in recent years has downplayed the risks.

Thune asks how those lifetimes are determined and what NOAA is doing to “improve its communications of individual changes to longevity assessments to lawmakers and other stakeholders?” Several questions seek clarification on the risk of gaps and whether NOAA has responded to recommendations from the GAO and OIG reports.   He also wants to know what actions NOAA is taking to resolve security vulnerabilities.

He asks Sullivan for a “prompt and thorough response” no later than August 29, 2016 and a staff briefing by September 9.  However, he also “regrettably” notes that NOAA “has been less than fully responsive to oversight requests from Congress” in the past, citing criticism from the Senate Appropriations Committee in its report on NOAA’s FY2017 budget request (S. Rept. 114-239).   That report says NOAA “often fails to respond in a timely manner to inquiries from Congress. Letters from members have often gone unanswered and repeated requests for drafting assistance have been ignored.  Congress plays an important role in the oversight of NOAA, and the Committee directs the agency to be responsive to congressional inquiries.”

NOAA is funded as part of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which also funds NASA.  The Senate bill was brought to the floor for debate in June, but its consideration was derailed by the gun control debate (as its name implies, the bill also funds the Department of Justice).

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