Senate panel quizzes NOAA on satellite programs

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Editor's note: This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. July 13, 2007. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

Lawmakers would like to know why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded a bonus fee to a contractor working on weather satellite programs suffering from schedule delays and significant cost overruns.

At a hearing July 10, the Government Accountability Office reported that cost estimates for both the National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System and the next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R have nearly doubled, despite the fact that NOAA is now asking for fewer satellites with fewer capabilities. The first launch date for NPOESS, originally scheduled for 2009, has now slipped to 2013.

Members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee told NOAA officials they did not understand why the contractor for NPOESS, Northrop Grumman, would receive a $123 million bonus.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) disapproved of the bonus, saying it was a failure of NOAA to reward the contractor even as the the agency removed vital climate change sensors from the satellites.

Committee members also questioned the oversight of NPOESS. On the one hand, the three agencies overseeing the program — NOAA, NASA and the Defense Department — seemed unable to assign tasks to one another properly, said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

On the other, Nelson also questioned why NOAA would be responsible for the launch of the satellites instead of NASA. “You’ve got a Hydra-headed monster here that can’t decide which way it wants to go,” Nelson said.

Mary Kicza, assistant administrator of satellite and information services at NOAA, said  her agency has since taken control of ground systems and made NASA responsible for the development of instruments, spacecraft and launch equipment.

The NPOESS and GOES-R satellites would orbit Earth's equator and poles to monitor worldwide weather patterns.

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