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NOAA Chief Gives New Figures for Weather Satellite Procurement

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

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GAO Issues Report Citing Both Improvements and Additional Needed Steps in Program Management

WASHINGTON - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Administrator Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. (ret.) told the House Science Committee today that he is trying to keep the cost of a new weather satellite in the range of $7 billion to $9 billion.

Lauthenbacher was testifying at a hearing on NOAA's plans to buy its next generation of weather satellites, known as GOES-R. Original cost estimates for the satellites, which are still in the design stage was $6.2 billion, but NOAA has recently raised the estimate to about $11 billion and has said the satellite will not carry one planned advanced sensor.

Also at the hearing, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified on a new report on the program's management. GAO said NOAA has taken some important steps to avoid problems experienced with other satellite programs, but still has more to do to avoid a repeat of the problems with its polar weather satellite program, known as NPOESS.

At the hearing, Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) said he hoped the hearing would be the beginning of a process of vigilant Congressional oversight of the GOES-R program to avoid the problems that occurred with NPOESS.

(GOES stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. NPOESS stands for the National Polar-orbiting Observational Environmental Satellite System.)

"As I think everyone knows, our past hearings on weather satellites have not been very happy occasions for anybody," said Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). "The polar satellite program, NPOESS, was entirely out of whack - over budget, behind schedule, losing capability and grossly mismanaged. But with GOES-R, NOAA is trying to evaluate its technology assumptions early and not overreach. NOAA has put together stellar independent cost review teams and what looks like an appropriate senior management team. Neither of these steps was taken in the case of NPOESS, and NOAA is taking action now for GOES-R precisely to avoid repeating past mistakes. That's reassuring."

But Boehlert added, "At the same time, there are some red flags already for us. The budget estimates for GOES-R are already close to doubling. Now, this is very early in the process - exactly when NOAA can make design changes to control costs in the end. But still, it's not comforting that the estimates were so far off so early. Also, NOAA is already dropping an advanced sensor. Again, this is in many ways a good thing - untried, problematic technology shouldn't be used on operational satellites. But it means that GOES-R may represent much less of a technological advance than had been hoped."

Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee Chairman Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI) added, "The ongoing problems with other satellite programs have made it clear that we in Congress must take our oversight responsibilities seriously - failure to do so can cost our communities dearly. Therefore, I look forward to hearing what GAO will tell us today about the state of GOES-R, and how NOAA is applying lessons learned from past satellite programs. I expect this hearing to be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue between NOAA, the GAO, and our Committee as we all work to ensure the success of this important program."

In its report, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites: Steps Remain in Incorporating Lessons Learned from Other Satellite Programs, GAO recommends that NOAA "establish a process for reconciling the government and independent cost estimates; perform a comprehensive review of a key instrument prior to moving it into production; and evaluate the appropriate levels of resources needed at the [GOES-R] program office to oversee the contractor's performance in meeting cost and schedule targets."

David Powner, Director of Information Technology Management Issues at GAO, testified that the Committee's close oversight GOES-R is helping ensure past problems with NPOESS are not repeated. "Your early oversight, Mr. Chairman, has been essential to ensure that NOAA is establishing a management team and processes that will help avoid repeating the problems recently experienced on NPOESS and other major satellite acquisitions," he stated.

NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. (ret.) said that lessons learned from NPOESS and the Science Committee' oversight activities have moved the agency to modify the GOES-R program to address cost and schedule concerns. "We have made significant changes to our GOES-R program management and oversight based on direction from this Committee, reviews from the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Commerce Inspector General, the recent NPOESS Nunn-McCurdy Certification process, and our own internal reviews," Lautenbacher said. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce.

Powner also pointed out that GOES-R is first major satellite acquisition for NOAA to manage on its own. Previously, the agency has contracted with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to manage its satellite acquisition programs "Given this, it will be important to leverage NASA's expertise and to aggressively and continuously manage the risks that seem to always plague the large satellite acquisitions," Powner said.

Powner added, "NOAA's attention to requirements and this acquisition's technical complexity prior to contract award is commendable, but recent direction still leaves our government with an extremely costly and complex acquisition that is essential to our nation's warning forecasting operations through nearly 2030."

The full GAO report, witness testimony and the opening statements of chairmen Boehlert and Ehlers are available on the Science Committee website.

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