Washington, D.C. – Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) and Subcommittee on Energy and Environment Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) held a hearing today on the status of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellites.

Two Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports on the respective satellite systems were released at the hearing:

  • Geostationary Weather Satellites, Design Progress Made, but Schedule Uncertainty Needs to be Addressed (GAO-12-576)
  • Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellites, Changing Requirements, Technical Issues, and Looming Data Gaps Require Focused Attention (GAO-12-604)

Speaking to the GAO finding that there may be a data gap in coverage for both polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellites, Chairman Broun noted that “A gap in one program is bad enough.  A gap in both programs would be catastrophic.” 

NOAA previously partnered with the Department of Defense (DoD) to operate a constellation of satellites in three separate polar orbits (early morning, midmorning, and afternoon) so that measurements are no more than six hours old.  In 2010, the Administration split the program so that NOAA would fly a satellite only in the afternoon polar orbit and continue to rely on the European MetOp satellites for the mid morning polar orbit.  The DoD has since canceled its plans for a follow-on program, and NOAA indicated that they would not supply sensors to the MetOp follow-on program.  The GAO report states, "recent events have made the future of this constellation uncertain."

The GAO also indicated during the hearing that further Congressional oversight would be needed for the polar-orbiting weather satellites in three areas; 1) how NOAA will deliver the system under the life-cycle cost cap of $12.9 billion when recent cost estimates indicate $14.6 billion for the full program; 2) the planning for additional free flyer satellites; and 3) the future health of the entire constellation.

Chairman Harris also questioned the witnesses about alternatives to the troubled programs.  At a prior hearing this year on NOAA weather data, a panel of outside experts all recommended that NOAA undertake an OSSE (Observing System Simulation Experiment), which would quantitatively evaluate different capabilities and options to determine the best mix of systems NOAA should pursue.  Chairman Harris said, “Absent an OSSE, NOAA is basing its weather data planning mostly on subjective opinions… While there are no easy answers to this dilemma, and the choices we make will require significant effort and evaluation, we must accept the status quo cannot continue.” 

The following witnesses testified today:
The Honorable Kathryn Sullivan, Ph.D., Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and Deputy Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Mr. Marcus Watkins, Director, Joint Agency Satellite Division, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Mr. David A. Powner, Director, Information Technology Management Issues, Government Accountability Office