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House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment Subcommittee Hears Findings of New Report Assessing GOES-R Weather Satellite Progress

Press Release From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Wednesday, October 24, 2007

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(Washington, DC) The House Committee on Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Energy and Environment today continued its oversight of the next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program. The hearing examined just-released findings by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) progress with the satellites' development.

NOAA, with the aid of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), plans to procure the next generation of geostationary operational environmental satellites, called the GOES-R series. This series is considered critical to the U.S.' ability to maintain the continuity of data required for weather forecasting through the year 2028.

"Designing and flying satellites is a difficult business, and even with years of experience there are always frustrations in bringing new ones into service," said Subcommittee Chairman Nick Lampson (D-TX). "In the early 1990s, the General Accounting Office told Congress that the generation of GOES satellites then in development was in serious trouble. The instruments were behind schedule, the program cost had more than doubled, and it still was not clear when the satellites would be launched. At least today we are not in the position of having the last GOES satellite in orbit with its fuel tanks almost empty."

GOES satellites orbit 22,300 miles above the Earth's equator and principally take pictures of weather patterns over the entire Western Hemisphere. These satellites are NOAA's primary sources for images and other data that support the National Weather Service units forecasting severe weather. The Severe Storm Center uses GOES to track tornadoes, hailstorms and other weather events threatening life and property over land. For the Hurricane Center, GOES can view developing storms in the areas of the oceans where there are no other observational sensors. Nightly weather reports at the Nation's local television stations regularly bring GOES pictures into homes across America.

GOES is likely the one satellite NOAA's forecasters would vote to save if they were allowed to keep only one. Given the importance of the satellite, a bipartisan group of Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations asked the Government Accountability Office GAO to (1) assess the status and plans for GOES-R, and (2) evaluate whether NOAA is adequately mitigating key technical and programmatic risks. To do so, GAO analyzed contractor and program data and interviewed officials from NOAA and NASA.

In the GAO report released at today's hearing, the findings revealed that NOAA has made progress in planning its GOES-R procurement--which is estimated to cost $7 billion and scheduled to have the first satellite ready for launch in 2014--but cost and schedules are likely to grow. Specifically, the agency completed preliminary design studies of GOES-R and recently decided to separate the space and ground elements of the program into two separate development contracts. However, this change in the GOES-R acquisition strategy has delayed a decision to proceed with the acquisition.

"It appears that the program cost estimate will be around $8 billion by the time we receive the President's budget request this year. This is some $1 billion more than the estimate Admiral Lautenbacher gave us last year. That is not a good trend," added Lampson. "It concerns me to find out that we are operating with both an acting Program Director and acting Deputy Program Director - and that NOAA's first attempt to fill the Deputy's slot couldn't find someone for the job. There appears to be strong disagreement between our witnesses about the relationship between NASA and NOAA in terms of managing the space segment of the GOES program." Independent estimates are higher than the program's current cost estimate and convey a low level of confidence in the program's schedule. The independent evaluators conclude that the proposed program could cost about $2 billion more than the program office estimates, and the first satellite launch could be delayed by 2 years. To address cost, schedule, and technical risks, the GOES-R program has established a risk management program and has taken steps to mitigate selected risks.

GAO informed Committee Members today that it is recommending that the Secretary of Commerce take steps to ensure that the GOES-R program effectively manages and mitigates risks. The Secretary agreed with GAO's recommendations to use a program level risk list and to add selected risks to that list, but disagreed that NOAA has insufficient insight into NASA's contracts. The Secretary cited an unparalleled transparency between the two agencies. However, NOAA has not demonstrated that it has validated NASA's contractor performance and GAO remains concerned that NOAA lacks the capability to oversee this key aspect of the program.

Read more about this issue and find the GAO's report on the hearing page of the Committee's website here.

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