Profile: Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.)

Ranking Democrat, House Science Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee

R ep. David Wu has emerged over the course of the past year as one of the most ardent watchdogs on the U.S. government’s troubled effort to develop the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).

Overseeing the program has been far from easy, Wu said during a recent interview, with pitfalls ranging from difficulty getting senior officials to take the problems with the development of the new weather satellites seriously to the Pentagon’s reluctance to share data with Congress.

Wu is not only concerned with NPOESS’ rapidly rising price tag, but also with the possibility that delays on the next-generation satellites, coupled with the possibility of problems with the current constellation, could lead to a gap in coverage that could have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy and even lead to a loss of lives.

Wu and his colleagues on the House Science Committee have been waiting for the Pentagon to release information they had expected to see immediately upon the release in early June of the plan to restructure the NPOESS program.

Despite a request from Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the Science Committee’s top Democrat, the supporting data used to justify the Pentagon’s decision to allow the troubled weather satellite program to continue, albeit with the purchase of fewer satellites and sensors and a higher price tag, has yet to be delivered to the committee members, Wu said.

While the Science Committee has held three hearings on the problems with the NPOESS effort since November, the tight flow of information from the executive branch has made it more difficult for Congress to effectively oversee the effort, Wu said.

Wu, a former technology lawyer who is serving his fourth term in Congress, says the administration did not appear to take the problems seriously prior to the committee’s hearings on the NPOESS program.

Wu noted that during a meeting last summer between committee leaders and Conrad Lautenbacher, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral who currently serves as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Lautenbacher dismissed the possibility of a $100 million cost growth above the cost estimate of $7.4 billion at the time. The program is now expected to cost $11.1 billion, but Wu said he is already hearing indications that the number could grow much higher.

Wu, whose bio lists him as the first and only Chinese-American serving in the House, spoke with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer during a July 18 interview in his congressional office.

What’s your take on the status of the NPOESS program – do you think the Defense Department and NOAA are moving in the right direction?

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> I have no way of telling, and we’re digging hard to try to find out.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)>

Is there anything that you have seen about the restructuring that gives you concern?

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> There’s been a cutback in various capabilities, and whether you are the military folks or the climate folks, you might not be happy that those capabilities that are being cut.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> This is kind of like saying I’ll send more troops to Iraq when the generals ask for it — my gut tells me that the climate scientists and military people aren’t permitted to complain about the lack of capability.

What kind of capability might be lost from canceling some of the secondary sensors on NPOESS?

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> I’m very concerned that the climate folks got the shaft, and I’ve never gotten a straight answer to the question of — for the Army and Navy folks — when we lose the capability to read soil moisture as closely as we want to, or to read near surface, over water wind-speed as close as we want to, what kind of capability are you losing? Is that worrisome to you or not?

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)>

Do you think that bringing the Pentagon and NOAA together on the program contributed to the problem, and if so, would you be hesitant to allow another program like this to go forward between the agencies?

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> I think that looking back through the history of this program, bringing the Defense Department and NOAA together as the major equity partners, and NASA as a third, non-equity partner has contributed to the problems that we’re in right now.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> Is the lesson drawn not to bring different organizations together? I hope that’s not the case. I think that when you do try to bring different organizations together, you have to do a lot of advance thinking and planning to take into account all of the complexities.

I’d love to be proven wrong on this, but I get the sense that because several different agencies were involved, no one was monitoring this program with sufficient attention and sufficient energy until Congress started digging and holding hearings on this.

You and Rep. Gordon had written a letter to the president on May 12 asking him to fire Adm. Lautenbacher — have you gotten any response from the White House?

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> I think that we wanted to express our displeasure at the level of management attention and the quality of management attention. And Bart Gordon and I have clearly made our point on that. I don’t expect to hear from the administration on that any time soon, but I think that they have heard our view that management up to this point has been short on quantity, and short on quality.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)>

Some in the space business community say that you are grandstanding by holding these hearings on NPOESS – what’s your response?

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> If you were in a private-sector business, and your total budget was $5 billion a year, and you went into a joint venture with another private company, and it’s supposed to be a $5 billion joint venture, and your product is late and the anticipated cost is $11.1 billion, you’d be fired.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> There is no chief executive officer of a publicly traded company that could go through this kind of process, and expect to remain chief executive of a company. The toughest thing about this has been to find a positive path forward. I think this topic is important, but this is not something that I’m seeking press on. It’s just not.

What’s the next step for NPOESS oversight?

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> I’ve talked with [Science Committee] Chairman [Sherwood] Boehlert (R-N.Y.), and [environment, technology and standards subcommittee] Chairman [Vernon] Ehlers (R-Mich.), and I think that we’re in agreement that we don’t have the information at hand — we’ve asked for the information, we should have the information, but we do not yet have the information at hand to perform the oversight function that we should be doing as Congress.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> I don’t care whose money it is — whether it’s the taxpayers money or private-sector money, you have got to be more careful with somebody’s money than that, and be very aware of the very serious need for the capabilities that we’re trying to get, whether its for weather forecasting or climate research or whether its for the Department of Defense and their various purposes of trying to track ocean and land conditions.

What are you going to do to get that information?

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> We’ll keep on pressuring them to give us the information. Last summer, we had very little information at hand, and no one was pleased about that. We are also talking directly with some of the contractors to get their take, and they’ve generally been more forthcoming than the executive branch of the government.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)>

Is there anything you might do legislatively?

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> Well, the Senate Appropriations Committee has cut $150 million from NOAA’s NPOESS budget request for 2007, and withheld an additional $100 million pending an analysis of alternatives to the program. If there are some folks that don’t like the fact that ranking member Gordon and I got upset with Vice Adm. Lautenbacher, we’ll have to see what the reaction is to what the Senate Appropriations Committee did.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,42.000,0,” “,)> We are in the midst of the brambles right now, and I think that the Senate Appropriations Committee is trying to find some responsible path forward. I think that Mr. Gordon and I are trying to find some responsible path forward. The problem is that from the middle of the brambles right now, there are no good paths forward. But we’re going to try.