NPOESS weather and climate satellite crisis: Should heads roll at NOAA?


An investigative report by the Commerce Department Inspector General is sharply critical of high-level federal management for failing to deal effectively with long delays and major cost overruns in the development and deployment of an essential satellite remote-sensing system under development by NOAA, the Defense Department, and NASA.  The National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is intended as an operational system to provide state-of-the art data for weather forecasting and climate system monitoring.  Some members of Congress are calling for the ouster of NOAA Administrator Lautenbacher in response to the IG’s report. 

The Department of Commerce Inspector General’s report, Poor Management Oversight and Ineffective Incentives Leave NPOESS Program Well Over Budget and Behind Schedule.

From Greenwire (by subscription), May 11, 2006, “Senior managers at fault for satellite program blunders—Commerce IG report” (copyright 2006 E&E Publishing, LLC):

The Commerce Department’s inspector general said today senior managers were responsible for troubles in the development of the next generation of U.S. weather satellites.

At issue is the National Polar-orbiting Operation Environmental Satellite System, developed by the Air Force, NASA and NOAA. Originally proposed during the Clinton administration as a cost-saving successor to separate military and civilian satellite programs, NPOESS now faces an uncertain future.

Cost estimates for the program have skyrocketed from $6.5 billion to $10 billion and the scheduled launch of its first satellite has slipped from May 2006 to at least April 2008—a gap that the Government Accountability Office has concluded could leave the United States with gaps in vital climate and weather forecasting data.

NPOESS’s future now awaits the June 6 verdict of a Pentagon review triggered by the Nunn-McCurdy Act when program managers notified Congress in January that cost overruns exceeded 25 percent of the program’s original budget.

From The New York Times, May 12, 2006, “Satellite System Is Over Budget and in Trouble”</a (copyright 2006 The New York Times Company):

A new weather satellite system planned for civilian and military use is behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget because of technical problems and poor management, according to testimony Thursday before the House Science Committee.

Johnnie E. Frazier, the inspector general for the Commerce Department, said managers from agencies involved in the program had failed to respond to problems as they arose and to challenge overly optimistic progress reports from the project director….

Mr. Frazier testified [that] senior managers from agencies involved in the program had failed to catch the problem or even meet regularly to assess the program until it became apparent that the problems were so severe the launching of the first satellite would be delayed….

House Committee on Science, Full Committee Hearing, May 11, 2006, “Inspector General Report on NOAA Weather Satellites”
The Committee Web site contains background on the issue, opening statements, written testimony by Inspector General Frazier and NOAA Administrator Lautenbacher, and a link to an archived Webcast of the hearing.

From the opening statement by Committee Chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY):

No doubt we will have some disputes at todays hearing, but I think there are two points with which everyone on this dais and both of our witnesses can agree.  The first point is that it is absolutely vital that the NPOESS program succeed.  NPOESS will provide our “eyes in the sky” for both civilian and military weather forecasting, and we cannot afford to be stumbling around blind. 

A degraded satellite system will cost lives, whether those are the lives of civilians who do not get the best information about approaching storms, or military personnel who lack information on weather patterns that could affect the success of their operations.

And the second point is that the NPOESS program is not succeeding right now.  It is not achieving its technical goals.  It is at least 17 months behind schedule, raising the specter of a gap in satellite coverage.  And it is as much as $3 billion over budget – $3 billion; the entire budget of NOAA, by way of comparison, is under $4 billion.  The NPOESS program is, to be colloquial, totally out of whack….

Unfortunately, I find a certain defensiveness and lack of clarity in parts of Admiral Lautenbachers written testimony, as I did in NOAA’s written response to the IG report.  I hope we can get direct answers in our proceedings today. 

What I want to hear clearly is an admission that NOAA and that means NOAA’s leadership right up to the top made mistakes, can identify those mistakes, and has plans to fix those mistakes.  Otherwise, it’s harder to place credence in general promises that the Nunn-McCurdy process will take care of everything.

I am made uneasy by statements like the one on page 3 of Admiral Lautenbachers testimony that “EXCOM has been actively and directly involved in the oversight and management of NPOESS” when the information provided by the IG and the actual performance of the program indicate otherwise.  I am made uneasy when the NOAA testimony never takes a position on the IG’s conclusion that both the potential and earned contract award fees were excessive.

We need to have a very frank and open discussion if this program is to get back on track.

House Science Committee Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. David Wu (D-OR) are calling for the removal of NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. (Ret.) and General John J. Kelly Jr., Deputy Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere:

“If this isnt ‘the fleecing of America,’ I don’t know what is,” stated Rep. Gordon.  “If were to have any hope of stopping this train wreck, NOAA must have new leadership -֖ the sooner, the better.”…

Problems with the NPOESS program have been mounting for years, yet NOAA refused to acknowledge their severity or act expeditiously to address them….

“Who is accountable for the billions of dollars cost due to gross mismanagement of this essential program?  The buck stops at the feet of the Admiral and his deputy, the General,” added Rep. Gordon. “If the President fails to take action to refresh NOAA leadership and salvage this program, then the blame should rightly shift from the agency to the Oval Office.”

In a letter to the President urging the Administration to replace NOAA leaderships, Rep. Gordon and Rep. Wu stated, “We passionately believe that public service should require competence and personal accountability.  At NOAA, the evidence is in that a monumental failure of leadership and management has occurred.  We urge you to immediately intervene and replace Admiral Lautenbacher and General Kelly, holding them accountable for the dismal failure at NOAA.”

NOAA’s NPOESS Web site, much of which as of the past few days looked like it hadn’t been updated for a long time, has now been entirely taken down and contains nothing but a Home page with the message “Under Construction.”  Before the site was taken down for rehabilitation, the “Program Status” page, last updated on August 27, 2004, listed the most recent “completed program milestone” as a preliminary design review in 2nd quarter, 2004. The next “upcoming” milestones were NPP CrlS and VIIRS Sensors Delivery (1st quarter, 2005) and NPOESS System Critical Design Review (2nd quarter, 2005).  These milestones have not been met and there is no published schedule for meeting them and subsequent milestones.

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