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Revised NPOESS Weather Satellite Program to be Examined at House Science Committee Hearing With Agency Heads

Press Release From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Wednesday, June 7, 2006

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WASHINGTON - The key program to build new weather satellites for both military and civilian forecasting has just undergone a statutorily required review because the program was more than 25 percent over budget. The program, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), is jointly run by the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with DOD and NOAA evenly splitting the costs, except for the costs of providing one preliminary satellite, which are being borne by NASA.

Testifying at the hearing will be Dr. Ronald Sega, Undersecretary of the Air Force, DOD; NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. (ret.); and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

The program has a troubled history of cost increases and schedule delays and it has been the subject of several previous Science Committee hearings, most recently a hearing on May 11 on a report by the Department of Commerce Inspector General (IG), which raised concerns about NOAA's program management and award fees paid to the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman.

The June 8 hearing will focus on the results of the statutorily required review, known as a Nunn-McCurdy review. Under the law, any DOD-funded program that is more than 25 percent over budget must be reviewed to see if it should be continued and if so, in what manner.

The review, which was carried out under the auspices of DOD by all three NPOESS agencies, determined that the program should be continued, but the number of satellites and their capabilities will be scaled back. The NPOESS agencies argue that the scaled back program will be able to capture all weather data collected by current satellites and will minimize the chance of having gap periods when a full complement of satellites is not flying.

The revamped program is estimated to have acquisition (as opposed to operational) costs of $11.1 billion ($11.5 billion if launch costs are included). That is an increase of about 50 percent, or $3.7 billion over the most recent official baseline of $7.4 billion issued in 2004. The original cost estimate for the program as configured before the Nunn-McCurdy review, which was issued in 2000, was $6.5 billion. No additional funds beyond those already projected will be needed until fiscal year (FY) 2010, according to the three NPOESS agencies. The first NPOESS satellite would be launched in 2013. The 2004 estimate assumed a first launch in 2010; the 2000 estimate assumed a launch in 2008. The Committee is seeking background materials to better evaluate and understand these estimates.

The hearing will address these overarching questions:

  1. Are the new launch dates and cost estimate for NPOESS realistic?
  2. What capabilities are lost in the new NPOESS program?
  3. Are critical weather forecasting capabilities maintained and/or improved in the new NPOESS program?
  4. What are the underlying assumptions (technical, cost, and schedule) that support the new NPOESS program design?
  5. Are there better alternatives than the one chosen in the Nunn-McCurdy review, especially for fulfilling civilian needs such as climate science?

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