updated 11/16/2005 10:26:34 PM ET 2005-11-17T03:26:34

The United States could face gaps in forecasting and tracking hurricanes and other severe weather because of $3 billion in cost overruns and a three-year delay in a new satellite program, officials said Wednesday.

The first of the next generation satellites may not be launched until 2012, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the House Science Committee.

Should the last of the current fleet fail, the gap in weather data could reach four years.

"This is a depressing case of failure and perhaps incompetence," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.

Polar-orbiting satellites provide daily, high-resolution images of the entire globe and account for more than 90 percent of the data used in civilian and military weather predictions, said Ronald Sega, undersecretary of the Air Force.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers said this year's series of deadly hurricanes showed how vulnerable the U.S. is to severe weather.

"We desperately need these new satellites to allow us to do an even better job of forecasting," said Ehlers, R-Mich.

'Program in crisis'
Congressional investigators said the cost of the new satellite program is approaching $10 billion, compared with $6.5 billion estimated three years ago.

It is "a program in crisis," said David Powner of the Government Accountability Office.

The fleet of satellites is meant to provide global weather data to both the Air Force and NOAA, which have run separate polar-orbiting satellite programs since the 1960s.

A joint military-civilian weather satellite program was to save taxpayers $1.8 billion. But problems with developing three of the 13 sophisticated instruments each satellite would carry have forced many of the overruns and delays, and more are likely, according to testimony released at the hearing.

Raytheon Co., the subcontractor on the most problematic of the three instruments, has fired and replaced its technical team. Raytheon also has stretched out development of the instrument, an infrared camera crucial in predicting hurricanes, according to committee testimony and documents. Northrop-Grumman Corp. is the project's main contractor.

"The program was in my view built on an optimistic basis," said NOAA's administrator, Conrad C. Lautenbacher. He cited what he said were "aggressive" cost, schedule and technological readiness assumptions made at the program's start.

Lautenbacher said program officials are considering further delaying the launch of new satellites to allow time to perfect the instruments or simply sending stripped-down versions into orbit.

As a stopgap, the United States eventually could acquire polar weather data from still-to-be-launched European satellites or from existing Pentagon satellites, if military efforts to extend their life are successful, officials said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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