Environmental Satellites:

NOAA Needs to Ensure Its Timelines Are Accurate, Clear, and Fully Documented

GAO-16-767: Published: Sep 8, 2016. Publicly Released: Sep 8, 2016.

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What GAO Found

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) process for updating its flyout charts involves obtaining updated information on the health of operational satellites and schedules for new satellites, having relevant individuals review the updated charts, and obtaining approval from a senior NOAA official to publish the charts. This process is partially documented in a 2011 draft policy.

NOAA updated the geostationary and polar-orbiting flyout charts three times between March 2014 and January 2016. Key changes included adding newly planned satellites; removing a satellite that reached the end of its life; and adjusting planned dates for when satellites would launch, begin operations, and reach the end of their lives. For example, in one set of changes between April 2015 and January 2016, NOAA extended the life of older polar orbiting satellites by 1 year, added a new fuel limited life period to its most recently launched satellite (called S-NPP), and changed the launch date and the end-of-life date for another satellite (called JPSS-2), as shown below.

Key Changes to Polar-orbiting Satellite Flyout Charts between April 2015 and January 2016

While NOAA has regularly updated its flyout charts and most of the data on specific satellites were aligned with supporting program documents, it has not consistently ensured that the data were supported by stringent analysis, consistent with underlying program data, clearly communicated, and fully documented. For example, unlike the Air Force, NOAA does not require regular availability assessments for its satellite programs. Also, NOAA's flyout chart updates are not always accurate and consistent with program schedules and polar availability assessments. Further, NOAA does not fully document its changes to the charts. For example, GAO's assessment of 27 key changes between March 2014 and January 2016 showed that 9 were justified in NOAA documentation and 18 were not. Part of the reason for these issues is that NOAA has not established a clear policy to standardize its approach. Until NOAA addresses the shortfalls in its practices and revises and finalizes its draft policy to help ensure the charts are accurate, consistent, and well documented, it runs an increased risk that its flyout charts will be misleading to Congress and may lead to less-than-optimal decisions.

Why GAO Did This Study

NOAA manages two weather satellite programs that provide critical environmental data used in weather forecasts and warnings: a geostationary and a polar-orbiting satellite program. The agency is acquiring the next generation of satellites to replace existing satellites that are approaching the end of their expected lives. NOAA regularly publishes timelines, called flyout charts, depicting its expectations for how long its operational satellites will last and when it plans to launch new satellites. These charts are used to support budget requests, provide status reports, facilitate appropriations discussions with congressional committees, and inform the public.

GAO was asked to review NOAA's recent flyout charts. GAO's objectives were to (1) describe NOAA's process for updating its satellite flyout charts; (2) identify changes NOAA has made to its flyout charts in recent years and the justification for those changes; and (3) assess NOAA's recent efforts to update its flyout charts. To do so, GAO reviewed agency policies and procedures for updating its charts; analyzed changes made to the charts since March 2014; and compared NOAA's approach to Air Force practices, internal control standards, and program documentation.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that NOAA take steps to improve the accuracy and consistency of its flyout charts, and to revise and finalize the draft policy for updating its flyout charts to address the shortfalls GAO noted. NOAA agreed with GAO's recommendations and identified plans to implement them.

For more information, contact David A. Powner at (202) 512-9286 or PownerD@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation, but has not yet addressed it. We will continue to monitor the agency's actions on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of providing accurate and clear information to facilitate congressional decision making and inform the public, the Secretary of Commerce should direct NOAA's Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services to require satellite programs to perform regular availability assessments and use these analyses to inform the flyout charts and support its budget requests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation and has taken steps to implement it. The agency updated its flyout chart policy and is in the process of drafting a separate policy to describe how the satellite's extended life is to be predicted and to establish the agency's criteria for publishing the information. This policy is expected to be completed in Fall 2017. We will continue to monitor the agency's actions on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of providing accurate and clear information to facilitate congressional decision making and inform the public, the Secretary of Commerce should direct NOAA's Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services to establish and implement a consistent approach to depicting satellites that are expected to last beyond their design lives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation and has taken steps to implement it. NOAA updated its policy governing how the flyout charts are to be updated. In doing so, the agency updated the policy's roles and responsibilities, guidelines, and its methodology for depicting extended life. However, the policy does not clearly define or describe fuel-limited life and its use, or establish standard artifacts for documenting and supporting planned changes to its flyout chart. We will continue to monitor the agency's actions on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of providing accurate and clear information to facilitate congressional decision making and inform the public, the Secretary of Commerce should direct NOAA's Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services to revise and finalize the draft policy governing how flyout charts are to be updated to address the shortfalls with analysis, accuracy, consistency, and documentation noted in the above recommendations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation, but has not yet demonstrated the steps it is taking to ensure that flyout chart updates are consistent with supporting data. We will continue to monitor the agency's actions on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of providing accurate and clear information to facilitate congressional decision making and inform the public, the Secretary of Commerce should direct NOAA's Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services to ensure that flyout chart updates are consistent with supporting data from the program and from satellite availability assessments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation and has taken steps to implement it. Specifically, NOAA provided its March 2017 flyout charts and the associated justification packages. However, NOAA has not established a standard set of artifacts to be included in the justification packages to support changes to its flyout charts. We are working with NOAA to obtain additional justification packages for the next iteration of flyout charts, and will continue to monitor the agency's actions on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of providing accurate and clear information to facilitate congressional decision making and inform the public, the Secretary of Commerce should direct NOAA's Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services, for each flyout chart update, to maintain a complete package of documentation on the reasons for any changes and executive approval of the changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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