Witnesses, House Committee Members Disagree on State of Weather and Environmental Satellites

Witnesses, House Committee Members Disagree on State of Weather and Environmental Satellites

During Thursday’s joint House Science subcommittee hearing, the agencies in charge of developing and operating U.S national weather and climate satellites insisted that a projected gap in weather coverage is not certain and that the necessary steps to address that eventuality are being taken. Others disagreed. 

The hearing to examine dysfunction in management of weather and climate satellites was held by the Subcommittees on Environment and on Oversight of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T). It began with Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA), chastising both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA for failing to submit their testimonies on time. This followed remarks expressed in his opening statement where he asked witnesses to answer questions “in a concise, straightforward, and accurate manner” and not to “sidestep” them “through the use of bureaucratic doublespeak.”

His statements expressing frustration at being told by NOAA and NASA “that ‘all is well’ when we all know that is not the case,” set the tone for the rest of the discussion, which was followed by visible disagreements between both agency representatives and the witness from the federal agencies’ watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  

GAO’s Director of Information Technology Management Issues, David Powner, summarized the findings of two reports GAO released this week on the polar orbiting weather satellite system, JPSS, and the next-generation geostationary weather satellite system, GOES-R. These are the latest in a long line of GAO studies calling attention to ongoing management and schedule challenges of the nation’s weather satellite programs. Just last February, GAO added concern over weather satellite data gaps to its high risk list.

With respect to JPSS, GAO found that “solid progress” had been made, but Powner spoke of the projected data gap as a certainty. Assuming that the current satellite, Suomi NPP, lasts for five years, that JPSS-1 is launched on time in March 2017 and that on-orbit check out takes a year, there will be a 17-month data gap between late 2016 and late 2018, he said.   But that’s the best case scenario, Powner explained.  A number of vulnerabilities identified in the report leads GAO to question NASA and NOAA’s 70 percent confidence assessment that the March 2017 launch date for JPSS-1 will actually be met, suggesting that the data gap could be much longer.

GOES-R, in turn, continues facing milestone delays, scheduling and other challenges, GAO found.  Powner referenced recent statements by NOAA officials that the launch would be delayed from October 2015 to the quarter ending March 2016.  This decision, though seemingly insignificant, extends to nearly two years the time that NOAA will be without an on-orbit backup satellite. An additional launch slip, he said, and a gap in satellite coverage will occur.

NASA and NOAA, however, disagreed with this bleak assessment.

Mary Kicza, NOAA Assistant Administrator of Satellite and Information Services, began her remarks saying she was “proud to report that JPSS and GOES-R continue to meet key milestones.” She noted that “while the title of this hearing would lead one to believe otherwise, management and oversight of these programs is functional.” She listed several successes, including reaching over 99 percent data availability with Suomi NPP.

When asked to put a number on the likelihood of a data gap, both Kicza and Marcus Watkins, director of the Joint Agency Satellite Division at NASA, said they estimated it to be 5 out of 10. “Our gap situation has improved,” said Kizca, who said that JPSS-1 was on schedule and that development of JPSS-2 has been accelerated. She also listed a number of risk mitigating practices, including close management of Suomi NPP. Noting that “infant mortality issues” have not been seen on the satellite, she suggested that NOAA might be able to reduce the on-orbit checkout period of JPSS-1 to less than a year.

“I am not aware of the gap situation improving,” said Powner, however, and urged against downplaying the likelihood of a gap.  Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Environment, said he was “troubled” by the differences in opinion.

Another hot topic of discussion involved the specific mitigation strategies that NOAA would implement in the event of a data gap.  Several members expressed serious concerns over a NOAA-sponsored study that, as reported by Space News, concluded that Chinese weather data could be the “silver bullet” to help fill this gap.

Kicza explained that a “host of options” are being examined and pursued by the agency to address potential gaps and that the use of Chinese data would be a “whole of government decision” that would involve the national security community to address definite security concerns.

Several members, particularly Stewart, pressed NOAA to consider commercial data buys from potential commercial partners that he said “have so far been rebuffed by NOAA.” Ranking Member of the Oversight Subcommittee, Dan Maffei (D-NY) noted that weather forecasting is already a public-private endeavor, but suggested it might be useful for GAO to pursue a study on opportunities for furthering public private collaboration in this area.

Powner agreed that NOAA has come up with an extensive list of options to address potential gaps, “but let’s be clear,” he said, “none of these options can replace JPSS’ polar satellite observations…these options can minimize the gap but do not eliminate the damage to forecasts from the gap.”

The charter for the hearing, opening statements by committee members, prepared statements by witnesses and an archived webcast can be found on the committee’s Republican and Democratic websites.

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