The House subcommittee on Energy and Environment expressed concern over the progress of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). NPOESS is overbudget, behind schedule and some planned operations have been removed or limited by technological challenges. The tri-agency organization responsible for the NPOESS project underwent a restructuring in 2006 and documents concerning the reorganization are still pending finalization within the agencies. Receiving major attention at the hearing was a memorandum from John J. Young Jr., Undersecretary for Defense Acquisitions, Logistics and Technology and the Program Acquisition Executive for NPOESS. According to the Hearing Charter, on April 30, 2008, Young “informed the (NPOESS) program that a failure to finalize all documents by August 31, 2008 would result in a cutoff of DOD (Department of Defense) Funds”. In addition to the memo, concerns for cost, capabilities, continuity, and the bureaucratic organization for the satellite were discussed with the panel.
Chairman Nick Lampson (D-TX) in his opening comments noted that the “NPOESS is having a difficult birth.” He continued, “Costs for this program are still not under control” and “technical problems are still not resolved.” Adding to those concerns is the possible cutoff of DOD funds based on the Young memo and a possible data gap if the mission is delayed further. Lampson expressed his desire to have an explanation of “how these problems are going to be resolved and when we can expect some good news.”
Ranking Member Bob Inglis (R-SC) echoed many of the sentiments of Lampson. Inglis added: “I believe that all of us involved, Congress, NOAA, the Air Force, and NASA have a vested interest in making sure that the system succeeds, despite the complexities. NPOESS holds the capacity for advanced climate and weather sensing, which, even in light of the cost, can mean great benefits for our country and the world.”
Mr. Powner testified first. He provided a history of the June 2006 restructuring of the NPOESS interagency organization between the Department of Defense (DOD)/United States Air Force, Department of Commerce/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which led to creation of the documents now pending. The documents include a “tri-agency memorandum of agreement and the acquisition program baseline.” Powner’s report states without these documents “the program lacks the underlying commitment needed to effectively manage a tri-agency program.”
In terms of cost, capabilities and continuity, Powner noted that “poor workmanship and testing delays caused an 8-month slip of a complex imaging sensor called the Visible/infrared imager radiometer suite (VIIRS).” The slip has moved the expected launch date of the NPOESS Preparatory project demonstration satellite to June 2010. “Such delays” Powner reported, “could also lead to gaps in weather and climate data continuity if existing satellites begin to degrade or fail.” Mr. Powner mentions that the “agencies have not yet developed plans on how to ensure climate and space weather data on a long-term basis as no plans have been made for sensors or satellites after the first satellite of the program.” As to the specifics of cost increases, Powner discussed how with $300 million more for sensors, $800 million more for operations and support and additional increases in security costs, he would not be surprised if the life cycle costs of the project reached $14 billion.
Admiral Lautenbacher of NOAA also spoke of the increased duration and costs of the program. The difficulties of interagency work, he admits, have been challenging. In regards to the outstanding documents, he noted “While getting these remaining documents finalized has not hindered our ability to manage and implement the NPOESS program thus far, they have been challenging to coordinate through a tri-agency process. However, EXCOM [the Executive Committee for NPOESS] remains committed to completing them.”
On the technical side, most of the challenges, he claims, have been occurring in the VIIRS instrument. He blamed contractor performance for the delays and technical difficulties. The less problematic technologies included in the NPOESSS Preparatory Project (NPP) set to launch in 2010 include the Cross track Infrared Sounder (CrIS), the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS), Ozone Mapper/Profiler Suite (OPMS) Nadir and Limb, and Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES). The Launch of the C-1 satellite projected for 2013 will combine additional technology including a Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS), Space Environment Monitor (SEM), Search and Rescue (SARSAT) and Advanced Data Collection System (A-DCS).
Lautenbacher in his written testimony discussed the 2006 decision to restructure NPOESS that led to the removal of several planned sensors including the aerosol polarimetry senson, the earth radiation budget sensor, the radar altimeter and the total solar irradiance sensor. The decision is currently being reconsidered in order to “identify options for retaining key measurement capabilities.” The five “highest near term priorities” for climate measurement capabilities were listed as: Total solar irradiance, Earth radiation budget, radar altimetry, ozone vertical profile, and aerosols. NOAA is currently working with multiple agencies to “establish plans on whether and how to restore the space sensors removed from the NPOESS program by June 2009, in cases where the sensors are warranted and justified.”
During the question and answer session, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), considering costs and delays, asked if those involved in the NPOESS might have been too optimistic about the potential of the technology to be developed for the project. Lautenbacher seemed to agree with that opinion reporting he would have preferred a more incremental approach. He stated his opinion that NOAA prefers to work with technology that has already been proven to provide less risk and more confidence the product will work and be on cost and on schedule.
Related to the bureaucratic problems, a large portion of the question and answer period focused on the structure of the tri-agency organization and considered that accountability and productivity might be enhanced by single agency control, though there was no conclusion as to whom that may be.
And in repose to a technical question on a more immediate point, Lautenbacher assuaged concerns over potential discontinuities in satellite information from space by pointing out that those issues which could have caused absences of information were avoided by other successful satellite launches. In his closing statement Lautenbacher assured, “we currently have well functioning operational satellites with back-up systems in place, and we are working on the next generation that will provide significant improvements in our ability to forecast the weather and monitor the climate.”
A direct link to the hearing can be found here.
Mr. David Powner, Director, Information Management Technology Issues,
Committee Members Present
Chairman Nick Lampson (D-TX)
The purpose of this hearing is to review the budget and timeline discrepancies between independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program. GOES is a series of weather-imaging satellites used to track hurricanes and other severe weather in the Western hemisphere. The GOES series is designed and operated by NOAA with partial operations, mainly launch capabilities, controlled by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Chairman Nick Lampson (D-TX) reviewed recent problems with the GOES
program. Last year, GOES-R (the next GOES satellite series which is
currently in the design phase) estimates had doubled to over $11 billion.
To bring down costs, NOAA decreased the number of satellites in the
GOES-R series from four to two, and cut one of the planned sensors
from the satellites. The GOES-R program has recently been reviewed
by GAO. Lampson stressed the importance of weather prediction enabled
by these satellite images, especially on the coasts. He wants to address
the relationship between NOAA and NASA and ensure the GOES-R program
Mr. David Powner testified for GAO, stating that early oversight
like the GAO report is "essential" to operations of this
magnitude. The GAO report includes a current cost and schedule assessment
of NOAA procedures. NOAA had originally listed its budget at $6.9
billion, increased it to $9 billion, and now decreased it to $7-8
billion to design, build, and begin operations of the next GOES satellite.
However, GAO estimates a cost of $9 billion, at least $1 billion higher.
NOAA estimates a launch date in 2014, and GAO estimates about one
year later. Powner stated these discrepancies are due to different
estimated production costs.
The GAO had two major recommendations. First, that NOAA should have
one program-wide list of risks rather than separate lists created
by each department. Second, NOAA should add new risks to their list
as identified by GAO. These new risks included problems associated
with unfilled GOES key management positions. Currently the positions
of system program director and deputy system program director are
filled with personnel in acting capacity. Another risk is that NOAA
cannot properly oversee NASA project management with their current
contracts. Better risk management and cost estimates are needed.
Ms. Mary Ellen Kicza represented NOAA and its GOES program. Currently
NOAA is in the final design phase of the GOES-R with an estimated
2014 launch. She asserted that the project "remains on track"
for the set launch date. Kicza explained that NASA manages the build
and launch of the satellite, while NOAA manages the communications,
ground systems, data retrieval and data analysis. Using two federal
organizations allows comprehensive oversight for the entire satellite
mission, as recommended by the GAO review.
Kicza stated that NOAA agreed with most of the recommendations of
the GAO report. NOAA is already working on filling the management
positions with permanent personnel, and is working on creating a single
risk list for the organization. But NOAA disagrees with GAO over not
having sufficient oversight of NASA project management. Kicza also
asserted that budget estimates have increased due to cost reassessments,
but GAO estimates have also decreased so the two estimates are now
within 12% of each other.
Chairman Lampson asked what estimates GAO uses in its assessments.
Mr. Powner replied GAO uses 80% estimates, but there is no ceiling
put on estimated costs. Lampson then asked Kicza if NOAA's budget
request for the next fiscal year will include these exact numbers.
Kicza's response was that the estimate is between $7-8 billion now.
When asked about discrepancies in estimates, Mr. Powner replied that
independent estimates were historically more accurate. He was also
concerned that estimates from NOAA kept changing, and even at this
hearing NOAA gave different numbers than they had recently. Ms. Kicza
said the organizations "will not exactly reconcile" estimates
and that it is important to get a sound cost estimate before getting
contracts for design.
Ranking Member Bob Inglis (R-SC) asked for the key areas of difference
between the two budgets. Kicza replied they were software and hardware
development and systems engineering.
Congressman Inglis asked why NOAA separated the acquisition contract
into separate parts for ground and satellite operations. Kicza replied
that the decision was made to ensure government oversight in every
element of the system, the way NASA typically works. It caused delays
of 3-6 months but uncovered issues that might not have been seen.
Powner believes that the short delay this caused "makes sense"
to properly review the separation. Kicza asserted that NOAA now has
"complete insight" of NASA contracts, disagreeing with the
Budget and schedule estimates for the GOES-R have changed significantly
and will likely continue to change. Both GAO and NOAA estimates have
shifted closer, but discrepancies of $1 billion in costs and 1 year
in launch dates still exist. The GAO review of the GOES program listed
several recommendations to improve risk management and program oversight,
most of which NOAA agreed to address. However, GAO still asserts that
NOAA does not have sufficient oversight of NASA program management,
while NOAA disagrees.
A link to witness testimony can be found here.
A direct link to the GAO report GOES: Further Actions Needed to Sufficiently Manage Risks can be found here.
A link to the subcommittee news report can be found here.
Subcommittee chairmen Nick Lampson (D-TX) and Brad Miller (D-NC) expressed similar skeptical views about the problems at NHC in their opening comments. Lampson cited Proenza's many years of essentially spotless managerial service as reason for questioning his six-month collapse as director. Miller said that things didn't seem to "add up." and he suggested that Proenza might be a whistleblower about a serious deficiency at the NHC who is being removed to cover-up the problem.
The subcommittee Ranking Members, Bob Inglis (R-SC) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), had views that differed sharply from the Democrats' stance. Inglis postulated that the conflict was "nothing more" than a "mismatched manager." Sensenbrenner accused the majority of risking a "culture of overzealous oversight" and stated bluntly that holding the hearing is doing "more harm than good." Intervening before Proenza could begin his testimony, Sensenbrenner tried a sequence of "parliamentary inquiries" to dismiss or delay Proenza's testimony. The Ranking Member's unsuccessful attempts were an assertive move to expose what he believes is Democratic favoritism for Proenza.
In his testimony, Proenza began by mentioning the importance of the NWS and NHC, saying that while the NHC "has never been more ready, we still have some issues." He stated that he is "paying the price" for bringing attention to the problems with QuikSCAT. Proenza seemed perplexed as to why he finds himself in this situation. He said, "I've asked myself, 'why all this resistance?'" In the end, Proenza said that he believed bringing attention to the QuikSCAT predicament is what cost him his job, but ultimately said that he would be ready to repair whatever "bruised relationships, wherever they may be."
Chairman Lampson began a lengthy question and answer period. Lampson addressed one particular episode during Proenza's term, where he has been accused of soliciting media attention about the role of QuikSCAT in hurricane tracking. Proenza denied this accusation and claimed that NOAA public affairs officials had arranged for the media event in question. Lampson also asked about Proenza's relation to his staff, and the former director said that there was no resistance to the changes he was effecting at the NHC. In response to questions by Chairman Miller, Proenza said he did not believe there were problems with his staff at the time, mentioning that scientists are in a constant environment of change and learn to adapt. In one particularly jarring quote, Proenza claimed that his immediate supervisor, Louis Uccellini, warned him about his QuikSCAT criticism by saying "you better stop [ ] you have NOAA, DOC, OMB, [and] the White House pissed off."
Ranking Members Inglis and Sensenbrenner continued the questioning, but from a different point of view. Inglis said that with a crisis like Hurricane Katrina still fresh in the Bush Administration's mind, he found it hard to swallow Proenza's critiques that the best technology (such as QuikSCAT) was not being made a priority. Proenza countered by saying that at the time of his original comments, no foreseeable contingency plan had been made for the satellite, though that has changed since. Inglis proceeded to ask Proenza for three names of people who would vouch for his leadership as NHC director. After naming one person, Proenza stopped and said that he did not want to put his employees in such an awkward position of having to vouch for their "boss" after this hearing.. Inglis pressed Proenza further, but Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) interrupted Inglis stating that he disputed the legality of such a question. Despite Baird's complaints, Inglis continued and felt that Proenza's lack of response spoke to his incompetence as a leader. Inglis also pointed out that Proenza has yet to speak "about the people" at the NHC and suggested that he just might not be "people person." The director dismissed the comment and said that he respected his staff. "They're not being ignored," he said frankly. During his questioning session, Sensenbrenner pursued more questions regarding Proenza's suggested media solicitation. The director responded that at the media event in question, he did not invite questions and answered them candidly. Sensenbrenner replied that it was not the committee's job to deal with personnel problems or an "employee revolt."
Questioning continued a while longer by more representatives including Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Brian Baird (D-WA), Tom Feeney (R-FL), Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), special guest Ron Klein (D-FL), and the Chairmen again. In that time, Proenza expressed concern about the timing of his employees' petition against him, implying that the assessment team might have amplified or encouraged staff discontent. However much of the time was spent by members stating their varying opinions on what the committee should be focusing, whether it be on science initiatives or satellite replacement.
The second panel featured Dr. Stephen Atlas, Mr. Don McKinnon, and Mr. Robie Robinson, all former associates of Proenza. Atlas spoke about the most important aspects of QuikSCAT data, such as the ocean surface vector wind retrievals, and their implications in both tracking and forecast modeling. He also brought up the point that, regardless of storm tracking, QuikSCAT also provides indispensable data for open-ocean measurements critical to the shipping industry. McKinnon described the process of applying satellite data to emergency preparedness programs. He defended Proenza's record and advocacy, and even suggested that his current difficulties might have been motivated by "retribution." Robinson echoed many of the same sentiments as his fellow panelists, testifying that Proenza has done well as a manager and helped implement a more streamlined way of distributing important weather information. The question and answer period with this panel shed no major light on the situation, but spoke to Proenza's reputation as an effective leader.
The third panel featured two important witnesses to the debate, Vice Admiral Lautenbacher, and Dr. James Turner, who led the assessment team organized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). In their opening comments, Lautenbacher defended his position saying that there were significant employee complaints and that he would have been shirking his duties had he not gotten to the bottom of the issue. According to the report, he said, Proenza engaged in disruptive conduct that was "deletrious" to the NHC. Lautenbacher cited much of the report's findings to defend his decisions regarding Proenza. During his opening remarks, Turner emphasized the reports impartiality and reiterated that the report is "not a referendum on QuikSCAT." Turner lauded the NHC staff for their ability and dedication and went on to say that Proenza's conduct compromised their ability to work effectively. However, he continued by saying that a simple replacement of the director will not resolve the issues at the NHC and that greater oversight is needed. Turner suggested improvements in NOAA leadership and management remedy the problems at the NHC.
Altogether, no major decisions were made, however there was bipartisan
interest in meeting with employees at the NHC, none of whom were present
at the hearing, to discuss the conflicts. However, there was agreement
that any hearing involving the testimony of the staff should not overlap
with the ongoing hurricane season, and would thus have to wait until
On July 11, 2007, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Space Aeronautics, and Related Sciences met to discuss the future of weather and environmental satellites. Due to escalating costs with the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and recent renewed attention on the longevity of the QuikSCAT satellite, the committee gathered experts of the scientific community to discuss the projections for future satellite infrastructure.
Chair Bill Nelson (D-FL) opened the hearing by emphasizing the importance of maintaining satellite capabilities, particularly those that monitor and help predict severe weather, such as hurricanes. "Hurricane losses averaged $36 billion in each of the last 5 years," he said, but "by comparison we spend less than $1 billion a year on satellites and hurricane research." In his opening comments, Senator John Sununu (R-NH) emphasized the importance of satellite programs as part of a broader science mission. He stressed the need for Congress to allocate resources effectively, for basic and applied research.
An unexpected first witness to testify was Representative Ron Klein (D-FL) who spoke before the committee about the importance of environmental satellites in forecasting and, by extension, in the lives of private citizens. Klein addressed the QuikSCAT satellite in particular, which has made headlines recently due to concerns about its longevity. "The loss of this data, whether minute or significant, could be problematic to many residents," Klein said. He described public safety as a "fundamental duty" of Congress.
After Klein testified, the panel of five witnesses came up to testify. The first witness to speak was Mary Kicza, an Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Kicza broke down NOAA's major satellite programs, of which there are two: geostationary satellites, in geosynchronous orbit, and polar orbiting satellites. Kicza recognized the value of having the QuikSCAT satellite, but was quick to mention that the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) was a suitable backup. She also emphasized that satellite data is primarily used in tracking hurricanes in the open ocean. Within 200 miles of the coast, she said, reconnaissance work, such as research planes and land-based radar, is relied upon more heavily. Even if QuikSCAT went down, she said, spacecraft and European satellites could still acquire similar data with comparable accuracy.
Next to testify was Dr. Michael Freilich, a Division Director at the Science Mission Directorate at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Freilich described the partnership that NASA shares with NOAA and the importance of that relationship for ensuring an effective environmental satellite system, specifically the success of NPOESS. He ran through the various projects on which the two agencies collaborate, including sensors to be launched as a part of NPOESS and a specific NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory project funded by NOAA. With reference to QuikSCAT, Freilich praised its valuable data and mentioned that it is in "decent shape." He added that it could be used until 2011.
The third witness to testify was David Powner, representing the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Powner provided details on the status of NPOESS. He said that the program has had "inadequate executive involvement" and contractors who have not kept up standards. Since 2006, he said, NPOESS has "progressed," but the GAO still has reservations about long-term success for the project. The office wants to see contractors held more accountable. In addition, a yet-to-be-named executive will be replacing the director of NPOESS, Brig. Gen. Sue Mashiko, which "adds risk to an already risky program."
Dr. Greg Holland, a Division Director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), began his testimony by saying that the weather forecasting in the United States is approaching a "crisis of hurricane proportions." Holland made many recommendations for tackling the risks, including improving computer modeling, data assimilation, and aircraft reconnaissance. However, Holland stressed most that there should be better coordinated efforts for hurricane management. Passage of the National Hurricane Research Initiative (NHRI) legislation, he said, would be a step in the right direction.
The final witness to testify was Dr. Antonio Busalacchi, Director
of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University
of Maryland-College Park. Busalacchi described the outcome of a National
Research Council (NRC) panel workshop that addressed the continuity
of climate data given concerns about the longevity of active research
spacecraft. He said the scientific community has three needs: sustained
and overlapping measurements, observations to initialize models, and
new and improved measurements in key parameters. The difficulties
and cost overruns of NPOESS threaten these needs, he said.
In the last part of the hearing, Nelson began questioning the reasons
for the environmental satellite crisis. Nelson suggested that political
appointees interfering with scientific discussion and "administration
silence on the global climate change debate" have contributed
to concerns. He then asked bluntly if politics were driving technical
decisions. Busalacchi said, as a former NASA employee, that he has
seen a "distinct change since 2000," but refrained from
saying why there might be such a change. Holland did say that political
decisions were being made, but added that it would be tough to say
if these were deliberate policy decisions. When Nelson asked if decisions
could be made without political influence, Holland replied that he
didn't know. But in all, he warned that "the best science and
best technology is not being applied at present."
The House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics met on June 28, 2007 to discuss the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Earth Science and Application Programs' fiscal year (FY) 2008 budget. The meeting sought to address funding for Earth sciences and applications as well as the balance of programs, predicted transition and progression of projects, and the maintenance of Earth observation capabilities.
Chairman Mark Udall (D-CO) opened by describing the hearing's intent to discuss how NASA Earth Science programs fared against the National Academies' Earth Science and Applications "Decadal Survey." The survey, he said, "represented a consensus of the Earth sciences and applications community" on the status and appropriate priorities for NASA's division. He reiterated concerns found in the survey about the nation's system of environmental satellites which is "at risk of collapse."
Ranking Member Tom Feeney's (R-FL) opening remarks addressed many of the same issues as Udall. Feeney expressed enthusiasm for the past achievements and future goals of NASA's Earth Science programs, but also had reservations about the prospects of the organization. Citing overambition, Feeney advocated temperance to ensure that NASA's expectations do not exceed what is financially feasible.
Testifying on behalf of NASA's Earth Science division was Dr. Michael Freilich. Freilich summarized the FY 2008 budget request, an increase of $32 million over FY 2007, or 2.2 percent. Among other things, the division is seeking to "reinvigorate" their flight portfolio, expand research and analyses, and improve the work done with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to transition new satellites into operation. Freilich also added that enacting the Decadal Survey suggestions will take effort on multiple fronts. The director mentioned technical difficulties, cost, and international partnerships as issues needing to be managed consistently in order to achieve success. He added, though, that enacting the Decadal Survey will take time, and indeed cited the Survey's priorities as having an impact on the agency's operations well into the next ten to fifteen years.
Dr. Richard Anthes, President of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, began his testimony by reminding the committee members of the ongoing Lake Tahoe fires and stressed the importance of Earth observations in handling such natural disasters. His testimony summarized Decadal Survey priorities, including both increased and restored Earth observation, as well as bolstering NASA's Research and Analysis program. Anthes also took time to remind the committee members of the financial constraints put on NASA's Earth Science program. Despite the FY 2008 increase to $1.5 billion, the division is still short of the more than $2.0 billion budget it had in the late 1990s.
Next to testify was Dr. Eric Barron, Dean Jackson School of Geoscience at the University of Texas, Austin. Barron briefly recapped the Decadal Survey suggestions and then went on to echo Anthes' comments about insufficient Earth science funds. "Let's restore the budget to the 2001 level," Barron urged. He also mentioned the fact that budget allocations do not merely have year-to-year, but long-term implications for the capabilities of NASA. Lastly, Barron reminded committee members that Earth science and monitoring is growing in public interest and demand; it will only continue to grow with time, he said.
Dr. Timothy Foresman, President of the International Center for Remote Sensing Education, was last to testify and cautioned the committee on an unfortunate trend if NASA's approach to Earth science does not change. Foresman cited private companies developing tools that are on par with NASA's own capabilities in earth monitoring. Referencing the relatively young Google Earth software, which permits users to view satellite images of nearly everywhere on earth, of varying quality, Foresman said, "we don't have anything as good as Google Earth." Such an assessment, he said, bodes poorly for an organization that should be at the pinnacle of scientific achievement. "Marketplace and enterprise," he said, "should not be allowed to replace NASA."
Few congressmen were present at the hearing, but those who were there, namely Udall, Feeney, and Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX), engaged in lengthy discussion with the witnesses during the question and answer period. During his sequence of questions, Lampson focused on several particular programs of interest to him at NASA and their prospect for the future, including the QuikSCAT program and the Extended Ocean Vector Winds Mission (XOVWM). He expressed concern that some of the delays on the administrative side of NASA could be due to a "bloated bureaucracy."
Many of the other questions focused on the accuracy of the Decadal Survey relative to what is feasible for NASA's Earth scientists. Panelists acknowledged, much to the appreciation of Freilich, that suggestions made in the Survey are balanced and worthwhile. But, as Anthes said, the concern is that the Survey addresses "too little [rather than] not a balance." Freilich maintained that all efforts cited by the Survey were necessary and now top priorities, but stopped short of saying that those efforts would be entirely sufficient. In sum, all the witnesses and committee members present agreed that these were worthwhile endeavors and that the United States has a duty to pursue a robust Earth science monitoring program for scientific and national security reasons.
As part of its continuing oversight of the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment convened on June 7, 2007 to receive an update on the program's progress. Three witnesses testified for the committee: Dr. John Marburger, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), David Power, Director of Information Technology management Issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and Brigadier General Sue Mashiko of the US Air Force, Program Executive Officer for NPOESS.
Chairman Nick Lampson (D-TX) opened the hearing by recounting the financial and administrative history of NPOESS. Specifically, this hearing marked the first congressional review of NPOESS since the 2006 Nunn-McCurdy report. The report was required because of the large cost overruns of the project. With an initial cost of $6.5 billion in 2000, the conclusion of the Nunn-McCurdy report recommended that by curtailing certain objectives, the program could be accomplished for $12.5 billion. The report mandated the removal of two satellites and some sensors to reduce costs and to keep the project on schedule. Chairman Lampson expressed his appreciation for the GAO report, which has led to significant organizational improvement in the administration of NPOESS. He attributed much of this improvement to the work of Brig. Gen. Mashiko and expressed concern that Mashiko would be moving to a new position and no replacement has been name to oversee her current responsibilities.
Ranking Member Bob Inglis (R-SC) kept his comments to a minimum. He pointed out the necessity for this "vital weather satellite system." Rep. Inglis' chief concern was the need for there to be no gap in the ability to monitor weather from space. Falling behind schedule has plagued NPOESS in the past.
All three witnesses spoke about the shortcomings and recent successes of NPOESS. Dr. Marburger summarized the restructuring of scheduling for specific sensors and their departure on particular satellites. In addition, Marburger mentioned various ongoing discussions among other agencies (Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, National Aeronautics and Space Administration) about their goals based on the revised capabilities of NPOESS. His testimony also emphasized the importance of monitoring weather and climate, as well as space weather phenomena.
Mr. Powner's statement showed restrained optimism. Powner acknowledged that the program had its failures in the past, but was emphatic about his support for the progress that Mashiko has helped effect. Like Chairman Lampson, Powner had strong reservations about the departure of Mashiko and said that the move "adds new risk to an already risky program." Powner could not provide a new estimate on the cost of the program until later in July, when administrators would meet with contractors to revisit their contracts. Altogether, Powner emphasized that the program was "far from out of the woods" and urged officials to "strongly reevaluate the reassignment" of Gen. Mashiko.
In her testimony, Mashiko described the various achievements in the restructuring process for NPOESS. One of the space-bound scientific sensors, the Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS), suffered setbacks while being tested for structural soundness. Mashiko described the steps taken as a result to ensure a working instrument. Similarly, she stated the Visible/Infrared Imager/Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) had several setbacks but corrective measures were underway and would require "intense management attention." Other sensors that were preserved as part of the program despite the Nunn-McCurdy reductions include: the Microwave Image/Sounder (MIS) and the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS) Limb instrument. In sum, Mashiko spoke of recent progress in a positive light, and that the program, while downsized, is now on the right track.
During the question and answer period, Chairman Lampson focused on the status of specific satellites and the accountability of the management. Delving into the production of certain sensors, he asked about their potential for speeding up the availability of the equipment. The panelists all agreed that more ambitious goals could be attempted, such as adding more sensors to satellite launches, but accompanied by an added risk for failure.
Rep. Inglis foucsed on the costs of NPOESS. Powner said that "we greatly underestimated the complexity of NPOESS" and suggested that overambitious goals at the program's early stages were the catalysts for disappointment. In response to Inglis' interest in how important the program was, Marburger answered emphatically that the program was critical for research in addition to commerce and defense needs. With regard to repeated questioning about the budgetary needs of NPOESS for this and upcoming fiscal years, the witnesses reiterated their inability to predict the potential for rising costs until later in July. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) also showed concern at the financial burden of the project and wanted to know if the cost could be shared among other countries, particularly European nations. Marburger responded that a small partnership, at least scientifically, had already been created for one of the satellites.
During her period of questioning, Rep. Biggert also showed concern for continuous availability of the data that Earth orbiting satellites provide. She wanted to know what measures were in place for "gaps in data." Marburger responded by saying that the continuity of data was one of the highest priority concerns for those administering NPOESS. Rep. Biggert asked whether the witnesses believed if only one agency had managed the program, instead of NASA and NOAA, if NPOESS would be more successful. Powner agreed that it would have made the process managerially more streamlined, but the technical difficulties due to the cross-disciplinary nature of the program would have been out-of-place under the oversight of only one agency.
Two other members of the committee, Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), asked the witnesses questions. Rep. Baird directed several of his questions to the relationship of NPOESS with other Earth observation programs. He expressed concern that NPOESS's needs might encroach on the progress NASA was making in other domains by occupying too much of the agency's workforce. During his remarks, Rep. Diaz-Balart addressed one satellite in particular, whose lifespan in space has currently been reduced to 2016. The device, used primarily for hurricane prediction and tracking, is important to Diaz-Balart's constituents. One of NPOESS's own sensors was designed to share some of the same responsibilities. The representative showed concern at the timetables given and felt uneasy by what he believed to be a mounting risk to his constituents' safety.
In the end, the hearing did not resolve the costs, delays or future
of NPOESS. Congress may have to deal with NPOESS after they receive
the July estimate of its total cost.
Growing concern about the state of Earth science research within NASA prompted yet another hearing in the Senate on Wednesday, March 7. "This is not a hearing on global warming," said Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL). "The jury is in and the conclusions have been overwhelming so today what we're going to examine is whether you scientists have the tools you need to monitor the fragile planet and to study how what we're doing as humans is affecting it. This is simply a time in which we cannot afford any mistakes."
Although Chairman Nelson was the only senator in attendance, the ensuing discussion covered a lot of ground, including ways to avoid just the sort of mistakes Chairman Nelson referred to in his opening testimony. Addressing Dr. Moore, Nelson asked if the seventeen missions outlined in the decadal survey represented an all-inclusive wish list on the part of NASA and NOAA, or if they were simply "the minimum responsible compliment of measurement tools." Published earlier this year by the National Academy of Science, the decadal survey (or, "Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond") is a hefty report that includes a series of recommendations that "call for a renewal of the national commitment to a program of Earth observations." The report and its recommendations have garnered significant attention in Congress, both because many of the recommendations address climate change issues and because of concern about maintaining America's innovative and competitive edge.
In response to Chairman Nelson's question, Dr. Moore exclaimed "It's not a wish list! We had a wish list." In fact, the wish list, compiled jointly by NASA and NOAA, contained 110 wishes which were then pared down to a mere seventeen priorities. Those remaining seventeen recommendations are "a reasoned response to the challenges," said Dr. Moore.
Chairman Nelson then asked what the impact would be if only a fraction of those recommendations were implemented. With a visible wince, Dr. Moore responded by saying "that would depend on which fraction." Listing the benefits of several of the proposed missions, including critical seismological and climate data gathering, he argued that "the planet is facing very serious issues that aren't going to go away." Drs. Brown and Freilich agreed, noting that the lack of leadership and shrinking financial support for Earth observation programs simply exacerbates those issues.
The future of the Landsat program, a series of Earth-observing satellite missions jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, also fell under scrutiny. Tight budget constraints in NASA jeopardize the Landsat program, which faces several "gap" years between the potential demise of the Landsat 7 mission and the launch and operation Landsat Data Continuity Mission. "If you look at the way we've managed the Earth observing business of the U.S., it has a checkered history," commented Dr. Moore. He also noted that "the only place Landsat hasn't been is the Senate of the United States," as it been managed by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Geological Survey, NOAA, and NASA at various times in the past. Dr. Freilich seconded Dr. Moore's comments, noting that continuous climate time series are "things to be cherished. It takes 30 years to get a 30 year continuous data set."
Unfortunately for the Earth sciences community, the budget overruns and missed deadlines of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) have left a bad taste in the mouths of congressional members on both sides of the hill. Though willing to forgive the failures of NPOESS, Chairman Nelson wanted reassurance that NASA and NOAA had learned from their mistakes. In regard to the technology and instrumentation problems of NPOESS, Dr. Freilich commented that "corporately, we were reaching rather far" and trying too hard to get "a truly outstanding operational constellation of instruments."
Despite its failures, however, NPOESS serves an important role in providing weather data and data that can be applied toward climate research. The issue of leadership was again addressed, as the witnesses argued for a new approach to processing the weather and climate data delivered by Landsat and other observation programs. Earth observing satellites provide data that can be used for weather and climate research purposes, but current data processing fails to distinguish between the different needs of climate and weather researchers. Separate weather and climate data processing centers would facilitate the dissemination and utilization of these datasets. Ms. Colleton also asked about long-term leadership. "NPOESS is supposed to go through 2024," she commented. "Are we considering what follows?"
Dr. Moore exhorted Chairman Nelson, Congress, and the White House
Office of Science and Technology and Policy to take advantage of the
unique "apolitical" situation during the next two years
to put Earth observing programs on "a more rational footing."
As the Bush Administration "by definition won't succeed itself,"
the timing is perfect for government agencies, the private sector
and policymakers to work together to define a specific role for Earth
science and earth observation programs. "The primary problem
is that the capabilities of agencies don't necessarily line up with
their responsibilities," he commented. Ms. Colleton too called
for leadership, saying that "without leadership, there will never
be a long term national vision for what we should be doing in this
Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) introduced the focus of this hearing, namely the findings and recommendations of a National Academies report and what Congress should do about them. The report, entitled "Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond" recommends a prioritized list of investments in space-based Earth observations. The report, also known as the decadal survey, was requested by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The decadal survey authors were charged with developing a national program "of scientific discovery and development of applications that will enhance economic competitiveness, protect life and property, and assist in the stewardship of the planet for this and future generations."
The survey's primary conclusion is that space-based Earth observing systems are under-funded and in disarray. In his opening remarks, Chairman Gordon noted "the decadal survey is sounding the alarm that unless we take steps to reverse the current decline, we aren't going to have the satellite system we will need in the coming decade."
Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX) supported the goals of the survey, but noted that the survey urges the government to invest $500 million a year for the next decade, a 33 percent increase over current funding levels. Although Congressman Hall favors increasing NASA's budget to help accomplish this, he noted "in the current budget climate I fear we cannot fully implement the recommendations and in that vein I intend to ask hard questions today about which of the recommendations and missions are most important."
Richard Anthes, the first witness and co-chair of the survey, noted a 50% reduction in space-based observing capacity by 2015 leading to an overall degradation of the systems. He noted harmful consequences for weather forecasts, Earth's net energy balance measurements, climate models, air quality forecasts, ocean science and understanding a broad range of Earth processes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes. Anthes called upon the committee to restore capabilities on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R), launch the Global Precipitation Measurement satellite (GPM) by 2012, replace Landsat 7 by 2012 and implement a series of 17 new missions (through NASA and NOAA) over the next decade.
Berrien Moore, the second witness and also a co-chair of the survey, testified that the survey recommendations were cost-effective and that the authors considered the budget constraints that Congress must deal with. He concluded the costs would be outweighed by the future benefits.
Jim Geringer, the third witness, served as the Governor of Wyoming from 1995 to 2003 and also represents the Alliance for Earth Observations, a nonprofit network promoting the understanding and use of Earth observations for societal and economic benefits. He asked the committee to provide an integrated Earth observation system to assure U.S. competitiveness, provide information, technology and tools to the public and designate clear leadership among the federal agencies involved to resolve the issues and attain the goals of the survey. He then proceeded to describe the societal and economic benefits of Earth observations, including security, natural resource management, and agriculture.
During the question and answer period, several members asked the panelists to indicate which missions have the greatest priority because Congress does not have the funding available to support all of them. Anthes and Moore did not specify any specific missions, but re-iterated their perspectives that all of the mission could be funded, that costs were considered in the survey and that they were only asking for Earth science funding at NASA to return to the same level of funding it had in 2000.
Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) noted that NASA lost funding for Earth sciences primarily because of cost overruns for NPOESS. He indicated that $3 billion in cost overruns could have supported everything the survey is recommending. Unfortunately nothing can be done about these cost overruns now and indeed there was an awkward silence when Rohrabacher made these comments, which were directed more toward Chairman Gordon than the witnesses. Policymakers must consider plans and costs for future Earth observations at NASA, NOAA and the USGS based on the decadal survey and other national priorities.
The full text of the decadal
survey can be read online.
To view the written testimony submitted for this hearing, click here.
Sources: Hearing testimony, National Research Council, and House Science and Technology Committee, Environment and Energy Daily.
Contributed by Linda Rowan, Director of Government Affairs, Erin Gleeson, AGI/AAPG Spring 2007 Intern, and Sargon de Jesus, AGI/AIPG Summer 2007 Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on June 30, 2008.