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Hearing: Weather Satellite Delays, Data Gap to Harm U.S. Forecasting

Press Release From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2015

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Washington, D.C.  Today, the Subcommittees on Oversight and Environment held a joint hearing to examine schedule delays to our nation's next generation weather forecasting satellites and the implications of the impending gap in weather data. Witnesses provided an update on operations and development of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) polar-orbiting (JPSS) and geostationary (GOES) weather satellite programs and discussed recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports on the two programs.

Environment Subcommittee Chairman Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.): "Given the criticality of JPSS and GOES to our forecasts, it is imperative we ensure these programs receive the adequate support and oversight to avoid further delays and costs overruns. Instead of continuing down the path of large government-owned satellites that are prone to cost overruns and delays, we must look outside the box for new methods of providing essential weather data. There is a burgeoning commercial industry that has incredible potential to assist us in providing accurate information to protect American lives and property, disaggregate risk, and save the taxpayers' dollars. We need to have the most resilient space-based architecture possible."

GAO recently published a report detailing its concern that JPSS will face an unprecedented gap in satellite data. GAO believes that, while JPSS remains within its new life-cycle cost estimate and schedule baselines, recent rises in component costs and technical issues during development increase the likelihood of a near-term data gap. Although NOAA has recently reduced its estimated potential gap from 15 to only 3 months, GAO notes that this assessment was based on incomplete data, such as the risks posed by space debris to satellite hardware. GAO estimates that a data gap may occur earlier and last longer than NOAA anticipates.

NOAA's GOES program, the geostationary satellite system, has undergone significant increases in cost and reductions in scope. The program was originally planned to launch mid-2012, a date that has now been pushed back to March of 2016. This means the U.S. will face a period of up to 17 months without a backup satellite on orbit.

Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.): "As a private pilot, I know the importance of having accurate and timely weather forecasts to assess flying conditions. Pilots must evaluate conditions on the ground and in the sky throughout the entire flight process, from takeoff to landing. From this perspective, you can see how a gap in weather data, and consequently less-accurate forecasts, could negatively affect not only commercial flight safety, but also the $1.5 trillion in total economic activity that the aviation industry contributes to the national economy."

Since 2013, both the JPSS and GOES programs have been included on a list of federal programs that qualify for the GAO's "high risk" classification.  According to the GAO, they were included in the list due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are most in need of transformation.

The following witnesses testified today:

Mr. David Powner, Director, Information Technology Management Issues, Government Accountability Office;[testimony]

Dr. Stephen Volz, Assistant Administrator, National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Services, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; [Testimony]

Mr. Steven Clarke, Director, Joint Agency Satellite Division, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; [Testimony]

Dr. Alexander MacDonald, President, American Meteorological Society; Director, Earth System Research Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Chief Science Advisor, Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and

Mr. John Murphy, Director, Office of Science and Technology, National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Statement of Rep Jim Bridenstine

Statement of Rep. Barry Loudermilk

For more information on the hearing, including witness testimony and the archived webcast, visit the Committee website.

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