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Panel Recommends Climate Satellite Shakeup

WASHINGTON, D.C.--A blue-ribbon panel recommended today that the White House intervene in the management of a crucial satellite program that has been plagued by cost overruns and delays, citing an "extraordinarily low probability of success." The panel, which presented its findings at an oversight hearing held by the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, concluded that the continuity of weather data is "at extreme risk" and suggested that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) be put in charge.

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is designed to replace two aging sets of satellites that the Department of Defense and NOAA each use for weather forecasts. NPOESS was also expected to significantly expand NOAA's ability to gather climate data. But the program has been delayed over and over, cost estimates have already doubled to nearly $14 billion, and the sensor capabilities have been scaled back. 

While there have been technical gaffes, many problems stem from the management structure. The program is jointly headed by an executive committee with representatives from NASA—which is involved in technology development—NOAA and DOD. The committee has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and convened an independent review team in response, chaired by Thomas Young, a former head of contractor Martin Marietta and former head of Goddard Space Flight Center.

Young's report (pdf) notes that a key problem is the different priorities of DOD and NOAA. DOD doesn't want to increase its funding of NPOESS, because it feels that the scaled-back system will be good enough for its needs. But that won't do the job for NOAA's climate research and monitoring. "The tri-management structure has been an epic failure," said David Powner of the GAO, which released the results (pdf) of a separate investigation into problems there.

Young says a choice must be made about the project’s scope and budget. "The right place for that to be done is the White House," he said, suggesting that either the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy or the National Security Council could make the decision.

NOAA would be the best agency to take the lead because of its expertise in climate and weather. "You want to assign [NPOESS] to an agency where it's its number one priority," Young said.