Two Democrats on the House Science Committee are calling on the White House to fire the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) due to cost growth on a weather satellite program .
Reps. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the ranking Democrat on the Science Committee, and David Wu (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on environment, technology, and standards subcommittee, wrote a letter dated May 12 to U.S. President George W. Bush asking him to remove NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher and a senior deputy to “hold them accountable for the dismal failure at NOAA.”
Gordon and Wu’s Republican counterparts — Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.), chairman of the Science Committee, and Vernon Ehlers (Mich.), chairman of the environment, technology, and standards subcommittee — share their disappointment with the status of the satellite development effort.
However, the two Republicans said removing Lautenbacher at this time would make it more difficult to put the work back on track.
Gordon and Wu’s letter accuses Lautenbacher, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral who has served as NOAA administrator since December 2001, of being either “negligent” or “incompetent” in overseeing the development of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).
The congressmen also asked Bush to remove Jack Kelly, a retired Air Force brigadier general who serves as NOAA’s deputy undersecretary of oceans and atmosphere. The letter, which was distributed to members of the media May 15, states that Kelly would not give straight answers to the committee’s questions.
The Science Committee held hearings May 11 and previously on Nov. 16 to address the problems with NPOESS, which has seen its expected cost grow from an initial estimate of $6.8 billion to $13.8 billion, the most current estimate, which was made in December.
A new cost estimate for the satellites, which are being built by Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., will be established next month after the program is restructured.
The NPOESS satellites are intended to replace separate constellations of polar-orbiting weather satellites operated today by NOAA and the U.S. Air Force, which are splitting the funding evenly for the development of the new satellites.
Committee members of both major U.S. political parties in Congress made no attempt to hide their frustration with the cost overruns on NPOESS during those hearings, and Gordon and Wu directly questioned Lautenbacher’s leadership.
“We passionately believe that public service should require competence and personal accountability,” the congressmen wrote in their May 12 letter. “At NOAA, the evidence is in that a monumental failure of leadership and management has occurred.”
This letter marked the first time that Gordon has asked a president to fire an administration official, underscoring his seriousness on the matter, according to Alisha Prather, a spokeswoman for the Democrats on the Science Committee.
Scott Smullen, a NOAA spokesman, said the agency is “perplexed” by Gordon and Wu’s letter to Bush, and said that Lautenbacher and Kelly take their oversight roles “very seriously.”
While NOAA “understands and appreciates” the letter’s concerns, Smullen said it already is working hard to put the NPOESS program back on track through the implementation of recommendations from the Commerce Department’s inspector general.
Those recommendations were part of a report from NOAA’s inspector general that was released at the May 11 hearing. The report also recommended adding more independent oversight to the NPOESS effort as well as removing the authority of the NPOESS program manager to approve award fees for the prime contractor.
The report had noted that Northrop Grumman earned about 84 percent of the available award fees on NPOESS, despite the cost growth on the program. Government program managers generally do not have the authority to green-light award fees because those fees are often looked at as a measure of how well an effort is progressing.
The sentiment for removing Lautenbacher and Kelly is not universal.
While Boehlert and Ehlers vented frustration during the May 11 hearing, they voiced support for Lautenbacher and Kelly in a written response to questions from Space News.
Boehlert and Ehlers said there have been problems in the past with the way NOAA’s top officials managed the NPOESS program and problems with the way they dealt with Congress, but they also said a change or gap in leadership would be counterproductive at a time when the program is about to be restructured.
While NOAA leadership appears to have taken significant steps towards improving the oversight on the NPOESS program, Boehlert and Ehlers said they would continue to watch the effort closely and plan to hold another NPOESS hearing at some point soon after the restructuring is announced next month.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said that he would not recommend that the president fire Lautenbacher. But Rohrabacher said that the magnitude of the problems with the management of the NPOESS program indicate that Lautenbacher ought to resign.
“It could only be worse if they tried to put the [first] satellite up and it ended up crashing into a city and killed the people living there,” Rohrabacher said in a May 17 interview. “After the hearing the other day, I did not have confidence in the admiral.”
However, the blame for the cost growth on NPOESS should not fall solely on Lautenbacher, Rohrabacher said. The officials who planned the program in the 1990s tried to design the satellites to accomplish too many different tasks, making the satellites overly complicated and expensive, he said.
These types of problems highlight the need for the government to focus on the development of smaller, less expensive satellites, particularly given the cost of a possible launch failure, Rohrabacher said.