Congress Grills Lautenbacher, Sega on NPOESS Cost Growth

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Members of Congress implored two Bush administration officials during a Nov. 16 hearing to request additional money now to get a troubled weather satellite program back on track and avoid a possible gap in critical coverage of severe weather conditions like the hurricanes that recently devastated portions of the U.S. coastline.

But Conrad Lautenbacher, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Ron Sega, undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force, both said that more money in 2006 and 2007 would not help them mitigate the schedule delays on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (NPOESS).

The NPOESS satellites, which are being jointly funded by the Air Force and NOAA as the replacement for the two separate fleets of U.S. civil and military polar-orbiting weather satellites, are now expected to begin launching in 2012, two years later than last scheduled, Lautenbacher and Sega told the House Science Committee.

From their opening statements through the end of the long session, members of the committee made no attempt to hide their extreme displeasure with the government’s execution of the program.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the committee, indicated in his opening remarks that he was aware the government planned to receive the details of an independent assessment of the NPOESS program Nov. 22, but warned Lautenbacher and Sega not to use that as an excuse for not answering questions or providing only vague answers.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the top minority party member on the committee, told Lautenbacher and Sega that he was frustrated with their lack of communication with Congress following discovery of the most recent problems with the program.

“Six weeks ago, you received your independent program assessment team’s report showing that projected cost overruns would range from $2 billion to $3 billion,” Gordon said. “That event should have triggered a call to our staff or even directly to members. Maybe you don’t consider a growth in cost overrun projections from $700 million to $3 billion to be a big deal, but I do.PRIVATE colorchange: “PRIVATE colorchange:

Gordon also told Lautenbacher that he was disappointed that NOAA was not pushing to add more funding in the near term to deal with the NPOESS problems, and questioned his motives.

“It looks to me as if you are willing to play out the clock so that you can get through your term at NOAA without having to do the hard work of asking the [Office of Management and Budget] and Congress to free up some more money now to save us money later,” Gordon said.

Gordon also reminded the witnesses prior to their testimony that the penalties of lying before Congress can include jail time, ratcheting up the pressure at an already tense hearing. Lautenbacher and Sega maintained their composure despite being continuously hammered — and often cut off before they finished answering questions — by committee members angry with the soaring cost of the NPOESS problems and their potential to cause a gap in weather coverage.

In contrast, Alexis Livanos, vice president for Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., the prime contractor on the effort, was thanked on multiple occasions for the company’s efforts to keep the committee informed about the difficulty with the program.

In addition to delaying the launches of the NPOESS satellites, technical difficulty on key sensors in the program also likely will affect the launch schedules of several other satellites, Lautenbacher said.

The NPOESS Preparatory Project, a precursor mission intended to test several key NPOESS sensors, will likely be delayed at least two years from its previous launch date of October 2006, Lautenbacher said.

To help cover a potential gap in coverage, the NPOESS Preparatory Project likely will be put into an orbit that better suits operational needs, Lautenbacher said. NOAA may choose to launch the last of its current generation of polar-weather satellites, known as N-Prime, later to help cover a potential gap, he said.

Sega said that he will be less concerned about a gap in the Air Force’s coverage if NPOESS can meet its first launch date in 2012, but he also noted that the military relies on some weather products that are unique to the NOAA fleet.

Fixing the sensor problems will likely add $2 billion to $3 billion to the current cost estimate of $7.4 billion for the life of the NPOESS program, Sega and Lautenbacher said.

Boehlert termed those figures “sobering.”

In 2002 when the government awarded the prime contract to Northrop Grumman, the estimated cost of NPOESS was $6.5 billion.

In the wake of the current problems, John Cunningham, the government’s NPOESS program manager, resigned, and his position has yet to be filled.

Northrop Grumman Space Technology shook up its own staff, replacing Fred Ricker, the company’s NPOESS program manager, with David Ryan, who had only been hired a few months earlier as vice president of payloads and sensors. Ricker is now vice president and deputy for programs at Northrop Grumman Space Technology, according to a Sept. 27 company news release.

While the price tag of the program is expected to rise substantially, adding funding in the next two years will not help, due to a restructuring of work on the problematic Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite, a sensor that has been a key culprit in cost growth, Lautenbacher said.

Raytheon Co., the subcontractor for that sensor, had two different teams working on the effort — one developing an engineering prototype while the other built the flight unit, Lautenbacher said. That work has been restructured to complete the prototype first, requiring a significantly smaller work force in the next few years, he said.

Lautenbacher, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral, noted that he had not been shy about asking Congress for additional funding during his 40-year government career, and said that he would continue to do so when necessary. He also rejected the speculation from Gordon and Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) that his motive for not asking for more near-term dollars was an attempt to leave the challenging work of fixing the program until after his tenure at NOAA ends.

“I assure you that this is not an attempt to run out the clock,” Lautenbacher said. “As most of you know, I eat, breathe and sleep NOAA. I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about these issues. I am leaning forward just as much as anyone on this committee to try to get the right answers and save the taxpayer money.”

NOAA is incorporating lessons learned from the problems with NPOESS as it develops a new generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites , Lautenbacher said.

However, he noted that while the committee pressed him to request more money for NPOESS, Congress had reduced NOAA’s 2006 budget request for the geostationary weather satellites, which will cause problems for that work. One administration official present at the hearing said afterwards that the $18 million reduction to the $240 million request for the new geostationary satellites would cause at least a six-month delay in launching those satellites, which is currently expected to begin in 2012.