House Republicans Still Concerned about JPSS Program

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Two Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are expressing concern about the $13 billion Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program, citing recent reports taking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to task for its management of this crucial civilian-run polar-orbiting weather satellite project.

Two reports published in late September — one by a NOAA-commissioned independent review team led by former Lockheed Martin executive A. Thomas Young, another by the Department of Commerce’s Office of the Inspector General — found that NOAA’s management of JPSS was overly complicated and that the agency lacked a plan for containing the program’s escalating costs.

In a joint Oct. 2 press release, Reps. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said they were especially concerned about the possible financial drain on the project posed by including climate-monitoring instruments on operational weather satellites, and a projected 10- to 16-month gap in weather coverage between the end-of-life of the first satellite in the JPSS program and the launch of the second.

“The [independent review team’s] conclusion that NOAA continues to prioritize climate sensors over minimizing this gap is disturbing, and must be addressed,” said Harris, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology energy and environment subcommittee.

“I am troubled to learn that [NOAA] does not have adequate plans to mitigate a gap in coverage, despite the pleading of the Committee to develop those contingencies,” said Broun, chairman of the House Science Committee investigations and oversight subcommittee.

“We have made, and will continue to make, these programs a priority as the observational data and operating systems are critical to NOAA’s National Weather Services’ ability to deliver life and property saving forecasts and warnings,” NOAA spokesman John Leslie wrote in an Oct. 5 email. “We are laser focused on delivering that success.”

The projected 10- to 16-month gap in weather coverage highlighted in the Commerce Department’s inspector general’s highlighted Sept. 27 report is down from the potentially 21-month gap the agency watchdog flagged in his September 2011 report on the JPSS program. Funding projections for the program have improved from 2011, when a full-year continuing resolution kept the JPSS budget well below the level NOAA managers said they needed, according to the inspector general.

Top among the inspector general’s recommendations in the latest report was that NOAA more specifically define the objectives of the JPSS program, which have been in flux since responsibility for the next generation of U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellites was effectively turned over to the civilian agency after the 2010 collapse of a planned civil-military polar weather satellite program and the subsequent cancellation this year of a planned military-only follow-on.

“NOAA must clearly define JPSS capabilities, schedule, and cost,” the inspector general wrote. “By defining the program and refining its cost-estimating process, NOAA can ensure that the estimate for JPSS is reliable.”

The inspector general report also called for an independent cost review of the JPSS program.

The present $12.9 billion lifecycle cost estimate for the JPSS program includes building and operating Suomi NPP, which launched in October 2011; JPSS-1, a $655 million spacecraft slated to launch in early 2017; a modified JPSS satellite launching around 2023; and two satellites known as Free Flyer 1 and Free Flyer 2, the first of which is to launch in late 2016. These five satellites would return data through 2028 via a common ground system built by Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems of Aurora, Colo.

NOAA added the Free Flyer spacecraft to the JPSS program to accommodate sensors that could not fit on the main JPSS satellites. These included emergency search and rescue transponders, marine sensors and a climate instrument called Total Solar Irradiance Sensor, which would continue 33 years worth of solar energy observations that are part of a broader U.S. climate record.

The NOAA-commissioned independent review team led by Young recommended deleting climate payloads from the JPSS program entirely and turning responsibility for those instruments over to NASA.