The eight-year-old QuikSCAT satellite is used in climate monitoring, ocean research and weather prediction. This spring, when Center Director Bill Proenza drew attention to concerns that the satellite was operating on borrowed time, his supervisors at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told him not to focus on the matter.
All the while, many employees at the center were expressing discomfort in a work environment that they said would not be cohesive during a hurricane situation.
On Thursday, Proenza testified before a tense joint hearing before two House Science and Technology subcommittees about the events that culminated in his removal.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., asked that Proenza be "excused" from the hearing because he did not submit written testimony 24 hours in advance as the other witnesses had been asked to do. Subcommittee Chairman Nick Lampson, D-Texas, said he did not request written testimony from Proenza because individuals "who might be considered whistleblowers" should not have to submit written statements.
Sensenbrenner then asked that NOAA's chief, Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, be allowed to testify at the outset of the hearing instead of after Proenza. "I object and we will go forward with our [hearing] as planned," Lampson said.
The Democratic leaders said they wanted to determine whether Proenza was forced to leave due to mere office politics or to the revelation of a technological failing that should concern citizens. Republicans said all the fuss is due to Proenza's management style.
Subcommittee ranking Republican Bob Inglis of South Carolina said, "I think it is equally possible that we have a mismatched manager," that this is a personnel matter "and nothing more."
Proenza said, "I've asked myself why all this resistance" to working on a replacement for QuikSCAT. "And by golly, I'm going to pay the price for bringing this to the attention of the American people."
Lautenbacher testified that center employees said they feared Proenza would retaliate against them if he learned they were voicing their discontent. During a conference call with one of Proenza's superiors, employees said they believed the QuikSCAT issue had been overblown.
Lautenbacher added that an independent assessment team he dispatched on July 2 recommended Proenza should be reassigned due to his failure to demonstrate leadership, rather than because of his public statements about the QuikSCAT satellite.
"I'd like to note that the official forecasts of the Tropical Prediction Center do not come out of a computer," Lautenbacher stated. "They do not come from a single satellite. Hurricane forecasting, at its core, still comes down to a team of specialists coming together to analyze all available data and using their best expertise and wisdom to make a forecast."