WASHINGTON — House lawmakers scolded NOAA’s top satellite official here during a Dec. 10 hearing about a lack of transparency in the civilian agency’s major geostationary weather satellite program, which recently fell six months behind schedule on launching its next spacecraft.
The admonishments drew a mea culpa from Steve Volz, NOAA’s assistant administrator for satellite and services, who testified here alongside David Powner, director of Information Technology Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office, in a joint hearing of the House Science Committee’s environment and oversight subcommittees.
Powner, roundly critical of NOAA’s lack of regular reporting on the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program, groused at the hearing about the little-reported failure on Nov. 20 of an instrument aboard GOES-13 — a satellite whose mission to keep a 24/7 watch on the U.S. East Coast was quietly approved for a one-year extension in April.
Volz approved the extension based on an internal NOAA study he ordered shortly after joining the weather agency from NASA in December 2014. The study found GOES-13 could be relied upon for at least a year beyond its 10-year design life, placing its end of service sometime in mid-2017.
NOAA has since used the GOES-13 extension to downplay the risk of slipping the launch of the newest GOES satellite, the Lockheed Martin-built GOES-R, to October 2016 from March 2016. NOAA swapped launch slots so it could take its time fixing bad spacecraft components discovered in tests at Lockheed’s factory in Denver this year.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), chairman of the environment subcommittee with jurisdiction over NOAA, said he didn’t find out about GOES-13 until October, when NOAA disclosed GOES-R’s launch would slip for the second time in the program’s history.
Bridenstine warned Volz this lack of communication smacked of deception.
“From our perspective, we learn that there’s going to be a delay in launch for GOES-R, and at the same time we learn that we’re going to extend the life of another satellite,” Bridenstine said. “It looks like it could be intentional, that we’re just extending [GOES-13] so we can get to the next launch.
“If we knew that well ahead of time, it wouldn’t have appeared this way,” Bridenstine said, hastening to add he was not accusing Volz of cover-ups or schedule chicanery; the sophomore congressman has become a dependable space ally since joining Congress in 2012, where he has been active in space issues in general and weather satellites in particular.
Volz apologized for not keeping lawmakers in the loop.
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