Summary of Hearings on Global Earth Observations
Since the 1970s, NOAA has operated geostationary satellites that provide images and data on atmospheric, oceanic, and climatic conditions over continental US and Hawaii from 22,000 miles above the equator. Recently, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) needed complete restructuring due to major cost overruns which led to delays and limited capabilities. A next generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, designated GOES-R, is near completion of its preliminary design. The House Committee on Science met on September 29, 2006 to assess progress on the GOES-R satellite program and ensure that GOES-R does not face any obstacles like NPOESS.
Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-NY) said, "Early on in the procurement process, we are going to inaugurate [an] open, continual oversight approach for GOES-R. This should be the first of many hearings on this critical weather satellite program." He applauded NOAA on its efforts to put together independent cost review teams and a sound senior management team. These steps had not been taken during the early stages of NPOESS. However, he said he worried that budget estimates for GOES-R doubled from an original $6.2 billion to as high as $11.4 billion.
The original GOES-R plan included four satellites with five sensors each. Recently, the plan has been modified to a minimum of two satellites with four sensors each to address budget concerns. Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI) expressed concern that NOAA cancelled the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite (HES) sensor. "The way NOAA fills the gap left by this instrument will affect how our nation observes and forecasts weather for the next two decades," he warned.
Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. outlined the preliminary GOES-R design plan, reasons for increased budget estimates, and steps that the NOAA has taken to ensure efficient operation. He said, "We are about five years ahead of where we were on NPOESS which gives us the opportunity to make sure it is the best system technologically for the cost and money that the nation is willing to pay for it."
Five sensors, including an advanced baseline imager (ABI), HES, two solar weather sensors, and a geostationary lightning mapper (GLM) were originally planned for the GOES-R program. The new ABI fulfills NOAA's critical mission requirements with the ability to take pictures at five times the speed of current GOES imagers and zoom in to view specific weather occurrences while giving a full picture of the rest of the US. The HES would have provided water images to give atmospheric temperature, moisture content and water quality and coastal hazard assessment. The Solar Imaging Suite (SIS) will record images of the Sun to detect solar flares, and the Space Environmental in-Situ Suite (SEISS) will measure space radiation. Finally, the GLM will improve lightning and severe weather detection.
Lautenbacher explained that because the HES is a large and complex satellite that incorporates high-risk technologies, NOAA has decided to cancel the implementation of HES in the GOES-R program. However, a HES preliminary design and risk reduction assessment will continue to completion, so that the satellite can be considered for future GOES satellites.
Currently, three contractor teams are working on preliminary designs and risk assessments for the project. At their completion, NOAA and the Department of Commerce will examine each system design and award a contract. Lautenbacher noted that during this process, NASA provides management and oversight on all GOES-R contracts. The ABI and SEISS have already been contracted and the ABI has begun development.
Lautenbacher attributed the rise in budget estimates to revised inflation assumptions, adding $2.6 billion, increased management based on recommendations, adding $800 million, increased equipment costs, adding $1.5 billion, and added launch, operation and support segments to the satellites, contributing to the rest of the increase. He informed members that NOAA's program office created a team of cost and technical experts to address the increase and provide recommendations on cost saving strategies.
In addition to this cost review team, Lautenbacher assembled a NOAA Program Management Council (PMC), "a backstop to normal NOAA chain of command," made up of senior NOAA and NASA personnel that evaluates GOES-R activities monthly. A group of satellite data users from NOAA also provide feedback, as well as a team of independent satellite experts that provide periodic reviews and address specific concerns from the PMC.
David A. Powner, director of Information Technology Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), testified on the GAO's recent report entitled "Additional Action Needed to Incorporate Lessons Learned from Other Satellite Programs." The report dictated that GOES programs must consider four lessons - NOAA's need to establish realistic cost and schedule estimates, confirm that technologies are ready before key decisions are made, manage the program more effectively, and use senior oversight to ensure program success. Powner said that since the report has been issued, NOAA has narrowed the scope of the project to a minimum of two satellites, cancelled one of the sensors, and put together a number of teams to evaluate the program and meet budgetary constraints.
While Powner acknowledged NOAA's efforts to incorporate lessons into their plan, he said that more remains to be done. "Accurate independent lifecycle estimates , a comprehensive view of [ABI] to fully understand the level of technological complexity and an independent review team to assess key resources are needed to adequately assess program performance," said Powner.
To view the written testimony submitted for this hearing, click here.
On July 13, 2006, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on the potential uses of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in Alaska and the Pacific Region. Committee members by and large expressed support for prospective non-military UAS development, and conveyed excitement regarding the myriad potential uses of the aircraft. Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) praised the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Coast Guard for beginning to incorporate UAS technology into their scientific and operational missions and pointed out that Alaska is an ideal location for the agencies to test UAS applications.
Although unmanned aircraft have been widely used for military purposes since World War II, only recently has the possibility of using UAS for scientific endeavors begun to be explored. UAS are extremely versatile, ranging in size from that of a model airplane to a Boeing 737. Unmanned aircraft may fly up to 30 hours at a time, can reach altitudes of almost 65,000 feet, and can carry as much as 3,000 pounds of scientific equipment. Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, NOAA's administrator, testified that UAS can provide an intermediate source of data collection that will supplement existing surface-based and space-based observing systems. "NOAA is interested in UAS as a tool to explore and gather data to help us reach new heights in our ability to understand and predict the world in which we live," he said.
According to Lautenbacher, UAS could potentially be used to monitor climate, weather, ecosystems, fisheries and marine mammal populations, flooding, wildfires, Arctic ice and volcanic activity. John Madden, the Director of Alaska's Department of Homeland Security, also suggested that unmanned aircraft could monitor the critical infrastructure of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System, the oil production fields of the North Slope, refineries, oil storage facilities, and the Alaska Railroad.
NOAA has conducted a series of successful unmanned aircraft test missions over the past year, including a flight into Tropical Storm Ophelia in September 2005. Additionally, both high altitude/long endurance and low altitude/short endurance test missions have been carried out. The high altitude/long endurance Altair aircraft was able to measure variations in ocean and atmospheric parameters off the coast of California for substantial periods of time, and the low altitude/short endurance Silver Fox aircraft demonstrated the potential to closely monitor marine mammal populations and unregulated fishing activities in Hawaii. Monitoring, mapping and surveillance flights such as these will become more frequent once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finishes evaluating the safety of each type of UAS, and is able to ensure that they are in compliance with existing federal aviation regulations and can be securely integrated into the national airspace system. Lautenbacher concluded that "UAS-based missions are not likely to replace traditional manned aircraft missions in the near future, but will instead complement and enhance them by providing unique datasets. UAS could allow NOAA to carry instruments to remote locations too dangerous or impractical for manned flight."
The Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services committee held a hearing on June 21, 2006 in order to increase committee members' understanding of the military, civil and economic role played by U.S. space assets. Subcommittee chair Terry Everett (R - AL) began by emphasizing the importance of U.S. spaced-based systems to our military operations as well as to our daily lives. He requested that the witnesses testify as to the dependency on or use of space in military, civil and economic systems and to describe the likelihood and consequences of losing our space assets, either by natural or human causes. Ranking member Silvestre Reyes (D - TX) further expounded on the military uses of space assets and emphasized the fact that total military bandwidth use is 80% commercial and that the space industry is an important component of our national and global economy. Mr. Reyes requested that the panel address ways in which those assets could or should be protected from intentional and unintentional disruption.
Lt. Gen. Kehler began by describing the role that space technology plays for the U.S. military. Satellite technology is used for everything from mission planning to troop navigation, and is crucial to the overwhelming military advantage that the U.S. currently enjoys. This advantage may be threatened, however, by attacks either directed against the satellites themselves or directed against the signal or ground operations. Lt. Gen. Kehler advised that measures be taken to improve protection of ground systems and improve the military's ability to get to and operate in space, such that the space situational awareness is improved and problems can be dealt with quickly.
Mr. Ed Morris spoke about the importance of space assets to the economy. Space technology contributes in two broad ways: directly, through the manufacturing and sales of satellite and related equipment (i.e., a global industry valued at about $90 billion); and indirectly, by increasing productivity, by broadcasting television, cell phone and wireless internet signals, by allowing the more accurate prediction of weather and by contributing to climate models.
Dr. O'Hanlon emphasized that the decisive advantage that the U.S. enjoys in space technology is ephemeral, and that there is no way that the U.S. can ultimately prevent other countries from entering space. This is particularly true for China, whose space program may rival that of the U.S. in coming decades and whose intentions for such a program are likely to be military. Furthermore, he argues, although the U.S. is responsible for militarizing space, it is in our best interests to prevent-for as long as possible-its weaponization (which includes the development of anti-satellite systems). Dr. O'Hanlon put forth several steps for the U.S.-particularly the U.S. military-to take to mitigate some of the worst consequences of satellite systems loss caused by an act of war or aggression. The steps included hardening the systems themselves, working towards greater redundancy and replaceability of the satellites, and consistently training military forces to operate effectively without the benefit of space-related advantages. Mr. Cavossa, representing SIA, expressed concern over the expense of hardening systems, both to the government and to industry.
The subcommittee questioned the witnesses about the vulnerabilities of the U.S. space systems as well as the level of hardship that would be imposed if those systems failed. Lt. Gen. Kehler, though unable for security reasons to go into great detail, stated that, while some components of the overall system were not adequately protected, there were other components that were very well protected. He listed three existing types of threats to the system, including terrestrial jamming, physical security (for ground and space infrastructure), and the proliferation of space-bound materials. Dr. O'Hanlon replied that the effects of a system failure could range from mild to catastrophic, instantaneous to chronic, depending on the situation. The subcommittee discussed the possibility of drafting treaties to control weaponization, dumping and other uses of space, demonstrating a tacit understanding that space will not be a U.S. "sanctuary" forever.
The House Committee on Science held a hearing on June 8, 2006 to discuss the results of the Nunn-McCurdy review of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). The program, which will build new weather satellites for military and civilian use, has just been reviewed under the Nunn-McCurdy provision*, because it was more than 25 percent over budget. NPOESS is jointly managed by the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The review has determined that the NPOESS program should be continued, but recommended that the number of satellites be reduced from six to four and that some of the satellites' climate-monitoring capabilities be scaled back. The estimated budget for this revised satellite system has increased from $7 billion to $11.5 billion, and the launching of the first satellite has been pushed back to 2013, five years later than originally planned.
Witnesses testified that the satellite program is finally on a realistic track, but members of the House Committee on Science remain skeptical. "We need to be convinced that these cost estimates are more reliable than those we have received in the past and that the proposed configuration of satellites is the best way to meet U.S. weather and climate needs," said Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). "So far, the Department of Defense, which controls the Nun-McCurdy documents, has not exactly been a model of cooperation," he said.
Ranking member Bart Gordon (D-TN) echoed Boehlert's concerns. "I simply cannot endorse this program on the basis of assurances alone," he said. "I need information and I want to see documentation that confirms the validity of the budget estimates and the risk assessments." Up to this point, requests to the DOD for the Nunn-McCurdy documents have gone unanswered. "At this point, I have only a bare-bones, heavily censored description of the redesigned polar satellite program. That is simply not sufficient," said Gordon.
Boehlert was also worried about the loss of climate data sensors on the satellites, which were originally planned to monitor aerosols, ozone, solar irradiance, ocean wind speed, soil moisture and the Earth's radiation budget - among other data related to the weather, atmosphere, oceans, land and near-space environment. However, NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher, assured Boehlert that the current configuration of sensors would be able to monitor all of the intended weather and environmental conditions with the exception of total solar irradiance. He explained that Nunn-McCurdy reviewers based their decisions for the revised program mainly on science priorities, rather than on dollar figures.
Lautenbacher, as well as Dr. Ronald Sega, Undersecretary of the United States Air Force, and Dr. Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator, testified that their primary objectives were to ensure that the satellites would be ready when promised and that the weather-observing capabilities of the sensors would be improved. Lautenbacher explained that he has been working to "ensure continuity of polar satellite data by minimizing any potential gaps in coverage."
In the end, Boehlert agreed that the program must be supported, regardless of its increased price-tag. "The success of NPOESS is critically important for both military and civilian weather forecasting, [in effect] for both national security and public health and safety." He concluded that "too much has been expended to start over from scratch. We have to make this work."
*The law, known as the Nunn-McCurdy provision, requires the Pentagon to notify Congress when costs on a program reaches 15 percent more than budgeted. If the cost overruns reach 25 percent, Nunn-McCurdy requires the Pentagon to justify continuing the program based on three criteria: its importance to national security, the lack of an alternative, and evidence that the problems that led to the cost overrun are under control.
The Senate Disaster Prevention and Prediction Subcommittee met on March 30, 2006 to determine whether delays and cost increases in the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) could lead to gaps in critical weather-prediction data. Subcommittee Chair Jim DeMint (R-SC) commended the goals of the program, which was created in 1994 to combine the military satellite system at the Department of Defense (DOD) with the civilian system managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). When NPOESS is fully operational, he said, "it will provide a better forecast for our coastal communities for hurricanes and other weather events and crucial information for war fighters." But he voiced concern that the project is billions of dollars over-budget and months behind schedule. Senator Ted Stevens, Chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, added "I don't understand how the price tag of this system has gone up to $10 billion."
Witnesses from NOAA and DOD blamed program delays and cost increases on technical problems and poor management by the project contractor, Northrup Grumman Space Technology. In turn, David Ryan, NPOESS Program Director at Northrop Grumman, blamed the problems primarily on the subcontractors responsible for sensor development.
As a result of the sensor and management problems, NPOESS costs grew from $6.5 billion in 1994 to $10 billion in 2006. In January, program officials were required under the Nunn-McCurdy Act to notify Congress that costs had increased by more than 25 percent of the initial estimate. NPOESS is now undergoing an official Nunn-McCurdy evaluation to determine whether the program should continue. The results of the review process will be reported to Congress on June 6.
David Powner of the Government Accountability Office told senators that one possible outcome of the review would be cancellation of the program. "NOAA and the Defense Department need to seriously consider contingency plans," he said. Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, acknowledged that cancellation is a possibility but deemed such an outcome unlikely. "Going without a polar-orbiting environmental satellite is unacceptable," he said. Other possible outcomes of the review process, Powner noted, include reducing the number and function of NPOESS satellites and using data from European satellites.
The key concern of Senators DeMint and Stevens was whether the delays would be enough to cause a gap in satellite data, and how soon a potential gap would occur. NOAA representative Greg Withee told the senators that NOAA currently has one orbiting polar satellite that should last until 2009 and one replacement that should keep data flowing through 2013. DOD, Payton said, currently has four launch-ready satellites that should allow coverage through 2014. But Powner pointed out that satellites can fail at launch, and that without back-ups ready, the U.S. could face a significant data gap. Nonetheless, Payton, Withee, and Ryan all maintained that their organizations are fully committed to the program, and that their highest priority is to prevent a gap in service.
For witness testimony and a video of the hearing, click here.
By the end of the hearing little had been resolved, but Boehlert and other committee members made it clear that they would continue to scrutinize the program. "If it looks like you need to slow things up to prevent further technical problems, then that decision needs to be stated clearly, with a clear statement of the remaining technical risks, and a clear statement of the costs and delays that will result," Boehlert said. "We need to move forward as partners with full explanations and sharing of information."
For more information on this hearing click
The House Science Committee initiated what may be a series of hearings that question NASA's plans to cancel or delay a number of Earth Science satellite missions. For Fiscal Year (FY) 2006, NASA has proposed to spend $1.37 billion for Earth Science research, an 8% cut from FY 2005 levels, and a 24% cut in real dollars from FY 2004, according to Science Committee ranking member Bart Gordon. A day before the hearing, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report, which found that tight budgets at NASA and other agencies are threatening the value and preeminence of U.S. earth observing systems. Concerned with these findings, committee members called on senior U.S. scientists to offer testimony regarding NASA's role in meeting future scientific priorities.
Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, Representative Gordon, and other members of Congress have been concerned that cuts to Earth observing missions are due to NASA's strategic reorientation around the President's "Vision for Space Exploration." In his opening remarks, Chairman Boehlert challenged the apparent shift in priorities. "The planet that has to matter most to us is the one we live on," he said. "You'd think that would go without saying." Gordon added that under the proposal, Earth Science and Aeronautic Programs would absorb 75% of the overall cuts that NASA must sustain to meet tight budget demands. In comparison, exploration programs would only account for 10% of the overall cuts.
Al Diaz, NASA's Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, was first to testify at the hearing. He urged the public to interpret the changes within NASA as part of a federal agenda to expand earth science into a national program. He said NASA can benefit from the space exploration initiative while contributing to stronger U.S. leadership in earth-systems research by involving more stakeholders. "We are in the midst of a transition in Earth science from a NASA-centric approach to a national strategy that maximizes all of our national capabilities," Diaz testified. "These changes have created some anxiety, and I recognize that it can cause some to question our commitment to Earth science."
Offering testimony on the NRC report was Berrien Moore, who co-chairs the 18-member NRC panel in charge of completing a larger, comprehensive decadal survey of all federal earth observing capabilities and their priorities through 2020. The report released April 27th was a phase-1 summary of the panel's initial findings.
Moore reported the panel's major recommendations, which include the immediate continuation or "urgent" reconsideration of several threatened satellite missions, which are summarized in the table below, which is taken directly from the NRC report. The delay or cancellation of these missions, according to Moore, would jeopardize NASA's ability to meet it's obligation to other Presidential initiatives, such as the Climate Change Research Initiative and the Global Earth Observation System of Systems.
Among NASA's current strategies are plans to shift some of the agency's climate data systems to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a plan that Committee leaders argue is a poor rationale for cutting NASA programs. "Having NASA claim that NOAA will take over activities when there is no indication of that in NOAA's plans or budget strains credulity," said Chairman Boehlert. "It's the sound of one hand clapping, and it won't get any applause from us."
While the NRC panel would strongly support agency partnerships, Moore further testified that in the near-term, the transfer of operations from NASA to NOAA involves "technological and scientific issues we don't understand." According to the American Geophysical Union's weekly publication EOS, Moore had not even been aware of NASA's plans to accelerate a "national program" as described by Diaz. At the hearing, each scientist testifying before the committee agreed that federal budget strategies must realize the fundamentally different roles that NASA, NOAA, and USGS play in basic research, technological development, deployment, and assessment. NASA, Moore explained, is research and development-oriented, while NOAA is purely operational. Therefore the long-term viability of NOAA to sustain a robust Earth science program depends on NASA.
When Boehlert asked the panelists to offer further insight into NASA's unique value, the scientists responded en force. Ray Williamson, Research Professor of Space Policy at George Washington University, corroborated the NRC report's findings that U.S. leadership in earth observing systems could simply not survive without NASA. According to Tim Kileen, Director of National Center for Atmospheric Research, NASA has been known for the unique coupling of rapid technological advancement and scientific analysis that has single-handedly positioned the U.S. "on the brink of a new era in earth science research." Marcia McNutt of the Monterey Bay Aquarium said that NASA is the only civilian agency that has the "capacity, tradition, and track record" to provide the necessary capital and leadership in earth science. If transferred to NOAA, McNutt warned, the Earth Science program would be "severed from the root of technology that feeds it," and "innovation within the program would wither and die."
According to representative CALVERT, the bottom line in the debate was the need for better strategic interaction among agencies. Although Calvert wished to defend Diaz's statement that NASA does not intend to abandon Earth Sciences, he said "strategy should always come before budget constraints in determining programs," implying that the current status of partnerships among NASA, NOAA and the Department of Defense is not condusvie to acheiving the national policy NASA is aiming for in the FY 2006 budget proposal.
On March 9, 2005, a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee held an oversight hearing on plans to implement U.S. contributions to GEOSS, major challenges, and the benefits of GEOSS to U.S. public health, energy use, and environmental protection. "This is the first time we've had political interest in such an issue," said NOAA Administrator Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, who is a key player in the team that drafted the 10-year plan. Regarding opportunities and challenges, Admiral Lautenbacher reported that the growing international support is promising and the technological goals of GEOSS would be easily attainable with sustained funding. However, certain geo-political obstacles remain unresolved, including national security concerns surrounding data access, and reconciling different business models for the cost of information.
Congresswoman Diana DeGette (D-CO) and other members of the subcommittee voiced strong concerns about the federal government's ability to maintain the long-term political and financial commitment necessary to support its own data assimilation, let alone the whole international effort. "The nature and level of investments in this area will either sustain or limit our ability to meet national and international needs for effective earth observation," she cautioned, quoting written testimony. Lautenbacher was optimistic that European investments and new involvement of developing countries such as India would relieve some of the U.S. cost burden. Regarding domestic efforts, witnesses from academia and the private sector asserted that the federal government's commitment must focus on articulating and quantifying the benefits of GEOSS to the mainstream, through demonstrations and outreach efforts. The nine areas that are to benefit from GEOSS, such as resource management, ecological monitoring, and the spread of infectious disease--depend on important information that lies at many different levels, not only in the federal agencies, but also in state and local agencies and institutions. "The big challenge will be building the consensus among the right groups of individuals," said Dr. Gregory Glass, Professor of Immunology at Johns Hopkins University.
In their testimony, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) were enthusiastic about the benefits of GEOSS, but when pressed by Rep. DeGette, EPA appeared to be the only agency with a line-item ($5.3 million) in their Fiscal Year (FY) 2006 budget request to support their role in GEOSS. DeGette called federal support "a little bit sketchy," adding, "We all think this is a great idea, but we need some clear goals from all the agencies and also some clear budget directives for Congress." A charter expected from the Interagency Working Group on Earth Observations (IWGEO) is expected to help expedite the institutionalization of GEOSS, but some agencies are clearly ahead of others.
Visit the EPA website to view an interactive page on state-by-state benefits.
Sources: Hearing testimony, EOS, National Research Council, House Science Committee, Environment & Energy Daily.
Contributed by Katie Ackerly, AGI Government Affairs Staff; Peter Douglas, 2005 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern; Jenny Fisher, 2006 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern; Jessica Rowland, 2006 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; Carrie Donnelly, 2006 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern, and Rachel Bleshman, 2006 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern.
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Last updated on October 6, 2006.