GAO Cautions: Continuity of U.S. Weather Forecasting Satellites Not Assured

Press Release From: Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Democratic Caucus
Posted: Friday, September 29, 2006


Democrats Seek Solid Data from NOAA that Problems of the Past Will Not Recur

(Washington, DC) The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report today on the status of a next generation NOAA weather forecasting satellite system, GOES-R. The report raises concerns about the current plans for acquiring new weather satellites relied upon to provide the U.S. with daily and severe forecasts.

"We have an opportunity to take steps to avoid problems with GOES-R that we are currently experiencing with NPOESS," stated Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN). "We simply cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the polar program."

Committee Democrats have closely followed ongoing acquisition problems with another NOAA weather satellite, NPOESS - a project that has fallen years behind schedule and is running billions over budget. Ranking Member Gordon and ETS Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. David Wu (D-OR) have directed stern criticism at NOAA Administrator Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher and the agency for their gross mismanagement of the NPOESS program.

The GAO report released today is entitled, "Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites: Additional Action Needed to Incorporate Lessons Learned From Other Satellite Programs." It offers a first look at NOAA's next-generation geostationary operational environmental satellite (GOES) system. This new satellite series is vital to assuring continuity of U.S. weather forecasting abilities through 2028.

GAO credits NOAA with changing the development plan for GOES-R to reflect the experience with NPOESS and other satellite programs. However, the report also notes that NOAA is, for the first time, taking the lead management role in a major satellite acquisition - and its lack of experience raises risks that GOES-R will find itself repeating the tarnished history of its predecessors.

"The familiar and valuable data this weather system provides the U.S. increases the need for responsible oversight of the satellites' development," added Rep. David Wu, ETS Subcommittee Ranking Member. "These satellites are essential to monitoring the development of severe storms and hurricanes. They provide us with real-time images of the 'eye' of the storm and severe weather threatening the U.S."

At present, NOAA is nearing the end of their preliminary design phase on the GOES-R system. Original cost estimates placed the GOES-R price tag at $6.2 billion with delivery set for 2012. Recent analyses increased the estimated costs to $11.4 billion and extended the delivery date by two years. NOAA expects to award a contract for developing the system in August 2007.

"We expect to see a realistic cost estimate for this program before a system contract is awarded," Rep. Gordon told Admiral Lautenbacher. "We also expect a realistic assessment of the technical challenges facing sensor development and expeditious oversight of this satellite program from within NOAA. GAO has clearly pointed out the current areas of concern, so this is an 'eyes wide open' situation. A debacle on GOES-R, like that which we seen happen in the NPOESS program, will not be well received by this Committee."

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