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GAO Report Examines National Polar-orbiting Operation Environmental Satellite System

Rob Boisseau
Number 71 - July 9, 2010  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report requested by the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight sheds light on years of technical delays, administrative mismanagement, and the spiraling cost of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).

The United States operates two satellite programs, the Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite (POES), and the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense/Air Force (DOD) respectively. There are currently one operational POES satellite and two operational DMSP satellites.  Both systems collect environmental data that are used for civilian and military purposes.  Data received from POES and DMSP satellites include cloud coverage, temperature, humidity, ozone distribution, snow cover, and sea surface temperatures among other measures.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive/NSTC-2 that reasoned, “While the civil and military missions of POES and DMSP remain unchanged, establishing a single, converged, operational system can reduce duplication of efforts in meeting common requirements while satisfying the unique requirements of the civil and national security communities.” 

NOAA, DOD, and NASA were directed to create an Integrated Program Office to manage, plan, develop, fabricate, and operate what was to become the NPOESS.  Responsibilities for NPOESS were divided among agencies with NOAA performing overall management of data and satellite operations, the DOD handling acquisition, and NASA integrating new “cost effective” technologies.  Budgeting was similarly divided with NOAA and DOD paying for NPOESS and NASA paying for specific technologies and studies.

The initial plan developed by the tri-agency Integrated Program Office was, in retrospect, ambitious.  As the GAO report explains, six satellites loaded with 10 environmental sensors and three subsystems would collect data from “atmospheric, cloud cover, environmental, climatic, oceanographic, and solar-geophysical observations,” while “subsystems were to support non-environmental search and rescue efforts, system survivability, and environmental data collection activities.”  Importantly, a demonstration satellite—the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP)—was scheduled to launch before the other six satellites to test new sensor technologies and to prevent a climate data deficit if NOAA’s POES satellite does not operate past its scheduled lifetime.

NPP was to launch by October 2006, with the first NPOESS satellite to follow by November 2009.  Neither launch date would be met.  The cost of satellite development, launch, operation, and ground-based satellite data processing was originally estimated in 2002 to cost $6.5 billion through 2018.  That figure was also off.

By November 2005 the NPOESS program was critically behind schedule and the estimated budget had swelled to over $10 billion.  The cost overrun triggered the Nunn-McCurdy statue which requires the Secretary of Defense to certify that a DOD program running 25 percent over budget is essential to national security, without alternatives, has a reasonable new budget, and is managed competently.

The NPOESS program was retooled during the Nunn-McCurdy recertification process. In June 2006 a $12.5 billion budget was deemed necessary to operate NPOESS satellites through 2024.  The number of satellites was reduced, from six to four.  The test NPP satellite was retained.  The number of sensors and subsystems on NPOESS satellites were also reduced from 10 and three to seven and two respectively.  Four of the remaining sensors were downgraded in functionality.

As the GAO report notes, “the revised NPOESS system had significantly less capability for providing global climate, ocean, and space environment measures that was originally planned.” In fact the number of data records that could be collected dropped from 55 to 39.  Data on “cloud particle size and distribution, sea surface height, net solar radiation at the top of the atmosphere, and products to depict the electric fields in the space environment” were sacrificed.  The four downgraded sensors would reduce the quality of six data records including measures of ozone, and soil moisture.  Response from the climate science community prompted NPOESS managers to reintroduce some sensors planned for removal, but overall the NPOESS system is less robust than intended.

Aforementioned delays and revisions through Nunn-McCurdy pushed back the NPP launch date to January 2010, and the subsequent NPOESS satellites an estimated three to five years.

While the Nunn-McCurdy recertification provided a roadmap for NPOESS, a host of difficulties conspired to take NPOESS off-course.  The tri-agency acquisitions process proved cumbersome; by May 2008 key acquisition documents were more than a year late.  At the same time, “poor workmanship and testing delays” pushed back the delivery of the Visible/Infrared Imager/Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor eight months, which in turn pushed back the NPP launch date to June 2010.  In December 2008 the NPOESS budget was revised upwards to $13.95 billion.

Six months later, continued delays and poor management meant another NPOESS budget estimate, this time $14.95 billion and more launch delays.  The NPP satellite launch was rescheduled for January 2011, with satellites one and two to follow in 2014 and 2016.  While NPP was intended to serve as a test satellite and as a stopgap if the POES satellite did not continue to operate past its scheduled lifetime, NPOESS managers decided to use NPP data operationally.

In August 2009 the Executive Office of the President created a taskforce led by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to investigate the NPOESS program’s long standing problems.  Ultimately that taskforce recommended against continuing NPOESS.  Instead, NOAA and DOD should pursue separate satellite systems. To avoid duplication, the taskforce provided additional direction.  “NOAA is to be responsible for the afternoon orbit and the observations planned for the first and third NPOESS satellites.  DOD is to be responsible for the morning orbit and the observations planned for the second and fourth NPOESS satellites.”

The taskforce’s decision is not a panacea for delays or cost overruns.  The GAO believes that, “the impact of the decision to disband the program on expected costs, schedules and promised capabilities has not yet been fully determined.  However it is likely that the decision will further delay the first satellite’s launch schedule, add to the overall cost, and remove selected capabilities.”

At present NOAA has a preliminary plan for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), their new satellite acquisition program.  NOAA’s first JPSS satellite (formerly the first NPOESS satellite, after NPP) is scheduled for a 2015 launch, followed by the second JPSS satellite (formerly the third NPOESS satellite) launch in 2018.  NOAA may remove sensors that were planned for both satellites.  The JPSS program will be run out of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, with NOAA providing program direction, staff, and budget, while NASA provides a program manager. NOAA estimates the JPSS program will cost $11.9 billion.

DOD is responsible for later satellites, and has more time to develop their NPOESS replacement program.  Since DOD’s acquisition plan is incomplete a comprehensive budget estimate is unavailable, but DOD’s initial estimate begins at $5 billion.

While the NPOESS program has largely been dissolved, work on the NPP satellite continues.  As has been the case for years, the NPP faces a myriad of problems.   In 2009 a vacuum test of a sensor revealed design flaws in several circuit cards.  Later that year, components of the same sensor were damaged when a subcontractor “failed to adhere to proper test processes.”  NPP cannot launch until September 2011 at the earliest, or five years after it was originally scheduled to launch.  Outstanding problems with sensors and contract liabilities could further delay the NPP launch, risking a window of time when the POES satellite may fail.  Regardless of when NPP becomes functional, for technical reasons, the data it collects will be less timely than current satellites and less secure (NPP’s security controls are based on 1998 DOD standards) than future ones.

The GAO made several recommendations for an orderly transition from NPOESS to individual programs at NOAA and DOD.  GAO recommends that NOAA and DOD move quickly on outstanding questions of cost, schedules, and satellite capabilities; identify risks during transition and organize offices to respond to them; identify the most important NPOESS products and direct NPOESS managers to give those areas necessary resources; and develop time frames for making key decisions regarding the NPP satellite.  Both NOAA and DOD offered favorable responses to those recommendations.

The Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight discussed the GAO report on June 29.  In their opening statements Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) and Ranking Member Paul Broun (R-GA) expressed similar concerns about cost and delays.  Miller called the decision to divide NPOESS between NOAA and DOD “Solomonic,” but cautioned, “splitting the program in two may simply create two new programs with the same problems.”  Miller also characterized the removal of climate sensors from satellites “ill-thought through” and a decision that “would have to be reversed.”

The committee’s concerns were mirrored by the GAO’s David Powner whose written testimony included the following:

“While the two agencies are scrambling to develop plans for their respective programs, it is not yet clear what the programs will deliver, when, and at what cost, but it is likely that they will cost more than the existing NPOESS baseline and recent program office estimates.”

And later:

“Although initial steps have been taken to ensure the short-term continuity of key climate and space weather measurements from satellites, the federal government has not taken the necessary steps to ensure the long-term sustainment of these critical measurements.  For example, NOAA recently removed sensors from JPSS that were originally planned for the NPOESS satellites in the afternoon orbit, but it is unclear how this will affect other agencies and programs.  Until an interagency strategy for earth observation is established, and a clear process for implementing it is in place, federal agencies will continue to procure their immediate priorities on an ad hoc basis, the economic benefits of a coordinated approach to investments in earth observation may be lost, and the continuity of key measurements may be lost.  This will hinder our nation’s ability to understand long-term climate changes and risk our ability to measure, predict, and mitigate the effects of space weather.”

Rob Boisseau
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics